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INVASION OF THE YARD SNATCHER

Just as Texas and Mississippi are blanketed by kudzu, an invasive vine is strangling part of Mandeville, and there’s little homeowners can do

By Ginger Gibson
St. Tammany bureau

Thursday, August 2, 2007

It came from the bayou.

Inching up the trees and through the grass, around bushes and fences, taking hold of everything standing still. Moving at the rate of a foot a day, it snaked across yards and began to take grasp of a Mandeville home.

Marilyn Harris calls it the “vine from hell,” and it’s swallowing her backyard.

Cayratia japonica, commonly known as bushkiller, is an invasive vine that grows quickly and is difficult to remove. According to the LSU Agricultural Center, it must be removed by pulling the weed and its entire root system from the ground. Native to Southeast Asia, it is found in Texas and Louisiana and has been creeping around the South for several years.

Harris spotted the vine growing in the trees along Bayou Chinchuba several weeks ago. She watched as it crept up a towering pine, turning it from lush vegetation into something resembling a telephone pole, she said.

“I’ve never seen a vine like this before,” Harris said, who has lived along the bayou for five years.

Rusty Batty, the LSU AgCenter agent for St. Tammany Parish, said the vine is capable of choking a full-grown and healthy tree to death. By covering the leaves, it blocks sunlight from reaching the tree, preventing photosynthesis.

Taking over the yard

Harris became concerned when it invaded the large trees along the scenic waterway. Like many of her neighbors, she has a particular affinity for trees.

But her nightmare was only beginning. The vine wrapped its curly tendrils around azalea bushes at the base of the trees. It coated the ground with a tangled labyrinth of underbrush. After enveloping the greenery, it began to move into her backyard in Mandeville’s Old Golden Shores neighborhood.

First it wrapped around her fence, and then around several small trees. It spread like a blanket across the grass and traveled underground, popping up feet away from other visible vines.

She rips sections of the pesky plant every day from under her deck, beneath the rocks that line her goldfish pond and between the cracks in the front driveway.

Collateral damage

Bushkiller can be removed by pulling the vine from the ground, but if some roots survive, it will return, Batty said. It can also be treated with herbicides, but there are no chemicals designed to treat just bushkiller; it must be attacked with a formula that will kill several types of plants.

Harris has researched the different chemical methods of destroying the plant, but she’s concerned about destroying the other ornamental plants in her backyard.

Her gardener has come to remove the vines from the ground and the bushes that line her garage, but as soon as he leaves the plant starts to grow again, she said.

The source of the vine is along Bayou Chinchuba, and Harris said the problem will continue because she can’t remove the roots that are lying below a protected waterway.

The bayou was declared a scenic waterway by the state Legislature several years ago and is under the control of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Keith Cascio, scenic river coordinator for the department, said the state cannot help Harris remove the plant because of time and money restrictions.

“A private landowner could pull it out without any problem from us,” Cascio said.

But Harris said she doesn’t have the money or the time to take on all of the bushkiller behind her home.

“There is no way one person can go back there and kill it,” she said.

Ideal conditions

Batty sees bushkiller in St. Tammany often, but he said Harris’ backyard has an unusual infestation. The overtaking of Harris’ yard is rare, Batty said, and most people are able to manage the vine by keeping it pruned and using herbicides.

The vine takes hold in unkempt areas and begins to spread. The trees along Bayou Chinchuba make for a perfect breeding ground. The flowing water, the various wildlife and the lack of attention to maintaining the vegetation produce an area where the vine can thrive.

The vine can spread through a number of means, Batty said. Often the seeds or spores of the vine lie dormant underground for years. When the soil becomes agitated by factors such as a storm, tilling or increased human presence, the spores are moved to the top of the soil. When a mild winter is followed by heavy rainfall, the seed has the perfect conditions to take root and spread.

Since Hurricane Katrina, vines such as bushkiller are popping up in several places they had not been seen before.

Blankets of kudzu

Bushkiller is a member of the grape family. But many people, including Harris and Batty, compare it to another invasive plant many people are familiar with: kudzu, a member of the pea family.

And while kudzu might be known as “the vine that ate the South,” bushkiller is fast-moving but not as overwhelming, Batty said.

Kudzu runs rampant in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, but it has never taken hold in the New Orleans area, Batty said. In northern Mississippi, it can be seen along the highways, covering trees, telephone poles and buildings.

It does seep into Louisiana occasionally, Batty said, and it can be spotted in the northern parts of St. Tammany and Washington parishes. But the likelihood of it infiltrating New Orleans is slim, he said.

For Harris it doesn’t matter whether it’s kudzu or bushkiller — she just wants it out her lawn. It has started to spread toward the front of her house, far from its point of origin.

She’s concerned that next it will take over two large oak trees, one in her front yard and another in the neighbor’s yard.

“Its coming up from right behind me, and I can’t go back there and stop it,” she said.