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Our Changing Winter: Tackling Invasives

Updated: Feb 26

by Charlie McCabe

Frozen waterfall, Virginia Wood, Middlesex Fells State Reservation

When I was growing up in the Boston area in the 1970s and '80s, the winter storm to remember was the Blizzard of 1978 in early February. Thanks to several feet of snow and blowing winds, the entire Boston area shut down for about a week. Even my town's school system, which almost never declared a snow day, was shut for three days (the storm was on a Monday and Tuesday). Thankfully, we didn't lose power (which often happened with lesser storms) and my whole family was home, digging out our driveway, as well as helping others do the same in our neighborhood.

Waterfall and historic bridge, Virginia Wood, Middlesex Fells State Reservation

This winter, we're having another El Niño-fueled, climate-change winter, with a lot of precipitation, but mostly in the form of rain. In December and January, we've had over 10 inches, versus an average of 4 to 5 inches. Further, we continue to see what climatologists are calling "whiplash" weather: normal for a few days, then warming into the 50s, usually because of an accompanying front bringing another weather system from the south and west. As a result, even when we do have snow, it melts pretty quickly.We still get the dreaded "wintry mix," a combination of rain, sleet, snow, and freezing rain. Our latest storm shifted to the south of Boston and portions of Cape Cod, Southeastern Massachusetts, as well as Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York got up to a foot of snow. Just north of Boston, we got a dusting.

Ice along Spot Pond, Middlesex Fells State Reservation

My consulting work is generally slower in the winter, beginning around Thanksgiving and picking up again in February. This gives me more time to tackle other tasks, like finally getting my basement workshop organized (the previous owner left a lot of wood and structures that I've been able to reclaim and use for other projects) and working on a book project. I've also been heading out and working on clearing culverts clogged by leaves, mud, and sticks, especially after heavy rain or when there's melting snow. This task requires thawed ground, so it's a bit of a "hit or miss" situation.

Unburied culvert along the trail, Middlesex Fells State Reservation

When I can't unearth culverts, I tackle invasive species in the Fells. The Friends of the Fells (I'm on the board) have a set of goals around invasive species, with one focused on managing certain areas with volunteers and other areas handled by licensed contractors. The Friends staff has led over 600 volunteers in projects in 2023, with many more coming in 2024. The priority for volunteers is the section of the Fells by the visitor center/office (Botume House) at Spot Pond, one of the reservoirs located inside the Fells.

A good example of a large amount of smaller and large bittersweet vines hanging off a large tree

Oriental bittersweet is our biggest invasive challenge. It's a fast-growing, woody vine that can entangle trees, plants, and well, almost anything. Imported from Asia in the mid-19th century, primarily for combating erosion (and making attractive holiday wreaths), bittersweet has no predators that eat it here in the Americas. Bittersweet grows quickly, sending out a tangle of vines that outcompete native plants for sunlight, soil, and moisture. What's more, it has berries that are a food source for birds, which means it can be quickly spread.

Big bittersweet vines wrapped around the trunk of a tree, with lots of smaller vines woven in as well

The most troublesome aspect of bittersweet is that it can entangle and strangle trees, eventually weakening and toppling them. Its does take a while — as the vines can grow thick over decades, slowly entangling native vegetation. Eventually, the weight topples them. Below are a few pictures of toppled trees elsewhere in the Fells, due in large part to bittersweet vines.

Fallen tree covered by bittersweet and porcelain berry vines, Middlesex Fells

Fallen / partially fallen trees entangled in bittersweet and porcelain berry vines, Middlesex Fells

Obviously, we want to avoid losing valuable canopy in this way.

So, my goal when out working on my own is to free mature trees from the tangle of bittersweet vines, often intermingled with two other vining plants — multiflora rose and porcelain berry. Essentially, the approach is to cut the vines as high as I can reach and then cut at the ground as well. Bittersweet is long-lived, the vines can grow several inches thick, and they and snake along the ground, rooting in here and there. I try and cut them in multiple locations. It can be a slow process, but it's also pretty satisfying to free a tree, which reduces the immediate stress upon it and eventually reduces the weight of the vines, as their water supply has been cut off.

Tree trunk with all of vines cut back / away — you can see the mass of smaller vines on the ground.

We try and make sure nothing is still rooted in to the ground.

That all said, this is a management activity versus an eradication or removal activity, as there's often more vines rooted in the ground and they often regrow. The key is to revisit areas at least once a year to snip back any regrowth and continue to look for ways to get the bulk of the vines out of the ground. To do that, we use a woody plant puller tool, often called a weed wrench, which is like a giant pair of pliers attached to the end of a long handled tool with a stable platform.

If we find any berries, we cut them out of the vines and place them in a trash bag for disposal. The vines themselves are pretty inert, but we follow the protocol of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), cutting them up and piling them by the trail for pickup and composting by DCR staff.

We're looking to see how many of the invasives pop up again, but we're hoping this gives seeds of native plants and smaller trees a kick-start to grow and help sustain the forested areas of the Fells.

If you want to help and are in the Boston area, Friends of the Fells has monthly volunteer workdays, usually 10 am to noon the first Saturday of each month. You can find more information at But keep an eye out for bittersweet and other invasives around your home, too, and please work to manage them just like we do in the Middlesex Fells. Your trees and native plants will thank you.

© Copyright 2024, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

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