Invasive beauty


Many years ago, a childhood friend and I marked the start of September by fashioning bracelets from the speckled turquoise, indigo, and blue berries that gleamed among a tangle of backyard vines.

We’d string the berries with needle and thread, tying them around summer-tanned wrists. Our natural jewels were lovely for a day, after which time the berries would brown and shrivel. No matter: plenty more waited to be picked.

I hadn’t thought of those berries until a few years ago, when I relocated to a home that backed against a schoolyard. The thickets and trees surrounding the schoolyard were full of them, growing on vines that shrouded trees and blurred the forest canopy. A little research uncovered the plant’s identity as porcelain berry, or Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, a woody, climbing vine brought to our country from Asia in the 1870s for use as an ornamental bedding and screening plant.

Alas, some of the very qualities that make this plant appealing to gardeners—insect and disease resistance, quick growth, tenacity—have gained it a spot on the National Park Service’s “Least Wanted Invasive” list. Porcelain berry competes with native plants for food and nutrients. A climber that can reach heights of 20 feet or more, porcelain berry will also shade out young shrubs and seedlings.

Should porcelain berry crop up in your backyard (berry-loving birds help sow its seeds), hand-pulling before the plant is in fruit is the best way to avoid an invasive onslaught. To differentiate porcelain berry from the similar native grape, examine its pith: the pith of porcelain berry is white, while that of wild grape is brown.

September has given way to October, and I’m still hard at work pulling porcelain berry from my own garden beds. That doesn’t stop me from gathering a few sprigs of turquoise, indigo, and blue berries to add to a fall bouquet. I am almost tempted to pull out a needle and thread. Instead, I reach for the phone and call my friend. While the berries are quick to fade, our friendship remains vibrant.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator


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