You’re walking through your woods or perhaps a nearby nature preserve and then you see it: a vine as thick as your forearm making its way up a tree. Being smothered by large vines is not good for trees. The extra surface area and weight from vines make trees more vulnerable to storm damage. If the vine canopy grows thick enough, it can block its host from light, and if the central vine winds tightly enough, it can even girdle the tree trunk. That said, there are vines that are native to the Great Lakes and larger Midwest. While native vines like wild grape (Vitus sp.) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) can still harm trees, they also provide habitat and food for native birds and critters. Invasive vines like Asian bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), and porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), are harmful to both individual trees and the surrounding ecosystem. Many of them can also grow as groundcover, creeping along the forest floor covering up virtually every plant in their way.
The first step in tackling a vine (or deciding whether it needs tackling) is figuring out what it is. This can be easier said than done, especially if the leaves of the vine are high up. There are three basic types of vine anatomy that give some clues: twining, grabbing, and clinging vines (see inset for examples you might find in natural areas). Twining vines, sometimes called bines, typically grow in a spiral around a tree or other support structure. Grabbing vines produce tendrils or sticky pads that grab onto support structures. Climbing vines produce aerial roots along their entire stem and tend to grow in a relatively straight fashion up tree trunks and other flat surfaces. Poison ivy can grow as a climbing vine, so if you have one of these, you may not want to touch it with bare hands!
Twining vines (look for spiraling, twisting stems): Asian bittersweet – Celastrus orbiculatus (invasive), Japanese honeysuckle – Lonicera japonica (invasive), American bittersweet – Celastrus scandens (native), trumpet honeysuckle – Lonicera sempervirens (native)
Grabbing vines (look for use of tendrils or sticky pads & areas of unsupported stem): Porcelain berry – Ampelopsis brevipedunculata (invasive), sweet autumn clematis – Clematis terniflora (invasive), wild grapes – Vitus sp. (native), Virginia creeper – Parthenocissus quinquefolia (native)
Clinging vines (look for lots of aerial roots and relatively straight vertical growth): Wintercreeper – Euonymus fortunei (invasive), English ivy – Hedera helix (invasive), poison ivy – Toxicodendron radicans (native but very itchy)
Some other ID clues: Mature grape vines tend to have shaggy, peeling bark while no other vines mentioned here do. If you have compound leaves (leaves made of several parts), you have Virginia creeper (five parts, shaped like a hand), a clematis species, or poison ivy (each with three parted leaves). Opposite leaves points to honeysuckle. Waxy, smooth-edged leaves points to wintercreeper. See our complete woody invasives profiles to help get the right ID!
Let’s say you figure out your monster vine is Asian bittersweet and you want to get rid of it. Great! Now what? There’s really only a couple of ways to treat mature vines that have climbed up trees. The first is to cut the stem as close to the base as you can get it and paint the stump (not the dangling part) with herbicide. Either a concentrated glyphosate or triclopyr based product should do the trick, and neither is likely to harm the tree roots. A second option is basal bark treatment with a triclopyr ester product, but be careful to completely treat the vine base without getting herbicide on the tree bark. Foliar treatment will really only be an option for species with an extended growing season that stay green late into the fall and that have low hanging leaves. Late fall foliar treatments of Japanese honeysuckle and wintercreeper may be possible while native plants are dormant.
The nice thing about treating big tree-climbing vines is that you don’t have to come up with a disposal plan. The vine parts in the tree will dry out, reducing the extra weight on the tree, and eventually will fall down. Trying to pull a large vine out of a tree could be dangerous and is likely to do more harm than good. Extra caution is needed if prescribed fire is planned after vine treatment. Dead vines can become ladder fuel, carrying fire into the tree canopy, which is definitely not good. Be sure to include wetting down of treated canopy-reaching vines as part of the safety precautions in your burn plan.
And there you have it! De-vine indeed!
By Clair Ryan, Midwest Invasive Plant Network Coordinator, September 2020
Header photo: Oriental bittersweet going nuts in a New York natural area (Clair Ryan, MIPN)