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The Monday Garden
Porcelainberry: Disaster in the Alley

Issue No. 127 - August 29, 2004
by Sue Sweeney

Porcelainberry, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, is a human-spawned menace. It entered the USA from Asia in the 1870's disguised as a desirable, if not miraculous, garden plant -- soooo pretty, soooo easy to grow, and the wildlife liked it too. Big mistake; like the one that the sorcerer’s apprentice made. In the lead for the “kudzu of the north” award, porcelainberry has spread out-of-control, smothering its hapless neighbors with a thick shroud of light-blocking vines, then pulling them down with its weight. So why do we care about this intra-plant war?
 

Picture: The dangerous being in the picture is the porcelainberry; not the wasp. Hoyt Street Alley Stamford CT 2004

 
In the age of malls and condos, our sub/urban gardens, industrial parks, and tiny left-over spaces between lots are the only available home for not only the birds and squirrels, but also the skunks, woodchucks, possum, raccoons, chipmunks, and deer; not to mention a feral cat or two; or even a family of red foxes or coyotes.

My favorite tiny nature sanctuary is the Hoyt Street Alley, source of many The Monday Garden photos.

It’s not a real street, so it doesn’t have a real street name; it’s sort of the long parking lot/access way at the back of an apartment complex with exits at each end connecting to parallel streets. When I was in high school in the 1960’s, I walked down the alley to catch my bus; today I live around the corner. Along one side, there’s a patch 25 vertical parking spaces long and about 4 car lengths wide that’s an undevelopable wooded gully between the alley and the next lot.
 

Picture: Hoyt Street Alley Stamford CT 2004 engulfed in porcelain berry

 
I’ve called this tiny gully “the squirrels’ garden” because everything here came by squirrel, bird or wind. A proper garden in the Biblical sense, it teems with an awesome array of life. The far-distant ancestors of the resident squirrels, I’m sure, planted the prolific and majestic red oak at the east end of the patch, and the almost as grand, and squirrel-beloved, shaggy bark hickory at the west end. (I away know it’s autumn by the sound of nuts bouncing off the parked cars.)

The wind definitely brought the winged seeds of the Norway maple, the ash, and, probably, the aspen, ailanthus, elm and catalpa. The jays, crows, mockingbirds, catbirds, sparrows, robins, finches, woodpeckers, and cardinals are the likely donators of the choke cherry, crabapple, mulberry, wineberry, rosa multiflora, Asiatic bittersweet, horse nettle, nightshade, woodbine, poison ivy , pokeberry, Queen Anne's Lace, loosestrife, asters, jewelweed, Goldenrod, Ragweed, Mugwort and other assorted weeds of summer.

I don’t know who contributed the garlic mustard ’cause no one’s quite sure how it spreads - just that it most certainly does; it might have come by car tire.

This little Eden is suffering slow death by porcelainberry. Year-by-year, the vine is overwhelming everything else, even the other invaders. Under the thick mat of vines, there’s a rouges’ gallery of invasives that deserve smoothing, in my not-so-humble opinion. (Although, it must be admitted that outgrowing rosa mulitflora, wineberry, Asiatic bittersweet and ailanthus is impressive.) Unfortunately, there’s also crabapple, chokecherry, catalpa, aspen.

 

Pictures: porcelainberry "drowning" the adult catalpa and of its two babies.

 
Now, here’s the squirrel’s problem. Porcelain berry fruit ripens early fall and it’s gone in a month. In another year or two, only the red oak and hickory will be above “flood level”. These stalwart trees will feed the squirrels with early spring buds and fall nuts but what about the rest of the year? And what about the birds? The vines provide plenty of habitat but what’s to eat?
 

Picture: A hard-working, family-oriented Hoyt Street Alley squirrel pauses to be interviewed for this article

 
So if what we do in our gardens ruins the wild ones’ garden, what then? Birds and squirrels can’t tell deadly invaders from “play nicely with others” natives. So if you and I don’t control what’s in our garden and help clean up the uncultivated areas, what then? Won’t be Eden any more.
 

Picture: porcelainberry spring leaf samples

 

Picture: porcelainberry summer leaf samples; leaves and stems feel hairy to the touch.

 
You might first see a porcelainberry seedling in your garden and think “How nice, a wild grape”. Don’t be fooled! While the foliage looks a bit like its grape relatives, porcelainberry leaves are smaller, with rounder and more deeply cut sinuses (the concave indentations in the leaf’s border). If you don’t pull porcelainberry up immediately, it develops long, thick, drought-proof taproots that are hard to dig out.

Porcelainberry, also known as amur peppervine, a member of the grape family, is hardy zone 4 to 8; and doesn’t care about soil conditions but prefers a bit of shade and moisture. It’s supposed to grow “only” 15” vines but I’ve seen it much longer. Japanese beetles eat it (for them, it’s food from home) but don’t do nearly enough damage to be useful control.

Despite having become the kudzu for the Northeastern USA, unbelievably, the stuff’s still being sold to the unsuspecting by nurseries and on-line. Porcelainberry has two native cousins in the Southeast, Ampelopsis arborea (peppervine) and Ampelopsis cordata (heartleaf peppervine, possum grape or raccoon grape). There’s an Asian cousin Ampelopsis aconitifolia (monkshood vine) being widely sold as an ornamental; but who’s to say that it won’t become as dangerous as porcelainberry?

Since porcelainberry spreads between locations only by seed, if you keep it cut down so that it can’t flower, you can at least contain it. Large plants can’t be effectively dug since each root fragment left behind starts a new plant. Mowing it to the ground 3 or 4 times a season can be effective. See The Monday Garden Issue 110 (Japanese Knotweed), Issue 112(Barberry and Winged Euonymus). and Issue 126 (Asiatic Bittersweet) on controlling invasives with black plastic (best early in season) and with herbicides (best in early fall).

For The Monday Garden "Eat An Invader Today" club, porcelainberry buds, leaves and fruit are said to be edible, if you can find them growing in an unpolluted place.

 

Pictures: ripening porcelainberry fruit

 

Pictures: TOP: ripe porcelainberry fruit     BOTTOM: porcelainberry in Hoyt Street Alley July 2004

 
Caution: Never eat any plant grown near a road or driveway. Heavy metals from car exhausts poison the ground and end up in the plants for decades. Equally dangerous are plants grown near industrial sites, dumps, and the like.
 

Picture: hope: someone's eating a few of the leaves

From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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