Vines, Vines, Vines:  What’s Growing Up My Trees?

Vines, Vines, Vines: What’s Growing Up My Trees?

We work very hard to maintain our gardens and then we look up and vines are growing 20′ into the trees.  I get asked frequently “what is growing up my trees?” My first answer is “probably the same things growing on your fences.”  These include Smilax species, commonly called catbrier or greenbrier, Vitis rotundifolia, referred to as wild muscadine grape, Parthenocissus quinquefolia or Virginia Creeper, and the one to be most careful with, Toxicodendron radicans, known by many as Poison Ivy.

Smilax Vine

Spring growth on the Smilax vine.

Smilax is a native vine that grows quickly in spring and all summer.  There are 12 species in Florida and 9 species commonly found in the Panhandle.  Besides being armed with thorns on their stems and some leaves, Smilax spreads by underground stems called rhizomes.  If you choose to ignore it, some species can cover your trees and the stems become woody and hard to remove.  This vine also produces fruit and seeds are dispersed by birds all while the underground rhizomes are spreading under your lawns and gardens.

Smilax Vine on Tree Trunk

Smilax can quickly cover a tree trunk.

Removal can be difficult and mowing the vines only encourages more growth.  When trying to remove by hand, wear heavy leather gloves and some eye protection because of the thorns.  Cut the stems about three feet above the ground which allows you some stem to pull on to bring it out of your tree.  You also then have a handle to pull and try to remove some of the rhizome from underground.  Digging rhizomes is time consuming, but gives you piece of mind that they won’t come back immediately.  Our family actually harvests the new shoots in spring and we use them like asparagus.

Wild muscadine grape is also native and difficult to remove.  Most of the vines in nature are male and only produce by runners along the ground and then grow upwards.  The female vine can produce 4-10 grapes in a cluster and then reseeds itself.

Muscadine on a fence.

Wild muscadine grape covering a fence.

Wild grape completely covers plants and eventually the plants underneath can die.  There are no thorns to contend with when removing wild grape, it is just time consuming, especially if it has taken over your fence or natural areas.

Virginia Creeper is a native vine, still considered a nursery plant in some areas of the country, and has bright red fall color.

Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper climbing a tree trunk.

It is most often confused with poison ivy because of having five leaflets per leaf whereas poison ivy only has three leaflets per leaf.  It spreads by seeds, runs along the ground, and is the easiest of these four vines to remove from your property.

Poison Ivy is a native vine distinguished by its three leaflets with the individual leaflets getting up to 6″ long.  This vine spreads by seeds and underground rhizomes.  What makes removal of this vine difficult is the urushiol oils which causes the skin rashes and blistering.

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy covering a tree trunk.

Care must be taken to cover up all skin and I recommend wearing waterproof clothes versus cotton which can absorb the oils and transfer them to your skin.  Under no circumstances should these vines be put on the burn pile, the oils can become airborne and then you can inhale them.

Here are a few helpful tips when battling these native vines.  First have patience and be dedicated, this removal will not happen over night.  It may take a year or two to rid your property of the original vines.  Be diligent though, because birds will continually land in your trees and deposit more seeds to get a fresh start.  Try to remove vines when they are young and just beginning to climb your trees and fences.  If you know you don’t have the time or energy to remove the vines from all your trees, at least cut the vines close to the ground to reduce flowering and new seeds.  Be careful with poison ivy because falling leaves still contain oils.  Once the vines start to have a new flush of growth, spray a non-selective herbicide on new growth and you should have good results.  Lastly, remember one person can make a difference in trying to reduce the number of nuisance vines in our communities.

Here are some sited references to help with your removal tasks.  Key to Nine Common Smilax Species of Florida. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/fr375.  Smilax is a Vine that can be Difficult to Control. http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/2017/04/21/smilax-is-a-vine-that-can-be-difficult-to-control/.  The Muscadine Grape (Vitus rotundifolia Michx.)  https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/hs100.  Muscadine Grape Vines: Difficult to Control in Your Landscape. http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/2017/03/24/muscadine-grape-vines-difficult-to-control-in-your-landscape/.  Parthenocissus quinquefolia: Virginia Creeper https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/fp454.  Identification of Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac, and Poisonwood. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/EP220.

Beach Vitex

Beach Vitex

Beach vitex in bloom is an attractive plant, which can make it more difficult to convince property owners of its harmful potential. Photo credit: Rick O’Connor, Florida Sea Grant

One of the biggest problems with beach vitex (Vitex rotundifolia) is its beauty. It has rounded, deep green leaves (with a silvery gray cast) and a beautiful little lavender-purple bloom. Like most weedy invasive plants, the plant was imported and sold as an ornamental groundcover for many years. Homeowners and landscapers planted it in coastal areas where it is well adapted to the salt and heat, and no one realized it would be so problematic. Ever since, beach vitex took root and has continued growing, unchecked, throughout the coastal south.

In this photo, beach vitex has overrun all native dune vegetation to form a monoculture. Photo credit: Randy Westbrook, Invasive Plant Control, Inc. bugwood.org

North and South Carolina started having big issues first, when beach vitex was planted deliberately to stabilize sand dunes after hurricanes. Soon after, a coastal restoration specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers realized the mistake. The vines run along the ground in such thick mats that native vegetation like sea oats can be choked out. The wide-spreading fibrous roots and tall profile of sea oats hold sand in place better than the beach vitex’s low growth and taproot, which have long term consequences for maintaining dune stability. The thick tangle of vitex growth is yet another obstacle for hatchling sea turtles in a long list of man-made problems that has made nesting and reproduction difficult.

The invasive vine beach vitex has taken over a stretch of sand on Pensacola Beach. Photo credit: Rick O’Connor, Florida Sea Grant

Eradication of the noxious weed has proved difficult. When a plant gets the nickname, “beach kudzu,” you know something went seriously wrong. Beach vitex produces millions of seeds in late summer and early fall, which are dispersed by wind, birds, and float over water. Unless removed before going to seed, even a small patch of the vine can expand rapidly. While not as prevalent in Florida, over 80 sites have been identified in the western panhandle with beach vitex. Due to these problematic issues, the plant was recently added to the Florida Noxious Weed and Invasive Species List, making it illegal to sell, grow, move, or release the plant.

To learn more about how to identify, report, and remove beach vitex, visit www.eddmaps.org or contact Rick O’Connor at roc1@ufl.edu.

Biological Control of Air Potato by a Beneficial Beetle

Biological Control of Air Potato by a Beneficial Beetle

Article by Jessica Griesheimer & Dr. Xavier Martini, UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center, Quincy

Dioscorea bulbifera, commonly known as the air potato is an invasive species plaguing the southeastern United States. The air potato is a vine plant that grows upward by clinging to other native plants and trees. It propagates with underground tubers and aerial bulbils which fall to the ground and grow a new plant. The aerial bulbils can be spread by moving the plant, causing the bulbils to drop to the ground and tubers can be spread by moving soil where an air potato plant grew prior. The air potato is commonly confused with and mistaken as being Dioscorea alata, the winged yam which is also highly invasive. The plants look very similar at first glance but have subtle differences. Both plants exhibit a “heart”-shaped leaf connected to vines. The vines of the winged yam have easily felt ridges, while the air potato vines are smooth. They also differ in their aerial bulbil shapes, the winged yam has a long, cylinder-shaped bulbil while the air potato aerial bulbil has a rounded, “potato” shape (Fig. 1).

In its native range of Asia and Africa, the air potato has a local biocontrol agent, Lilioceris cheni commonly known as the Chinese air potato beetle (Fig. 2). As an adult, this beetle feeds on older leaves and deposits eggs on younger leaves for the larvae to later feed on. Once the larvae have grown and fed, they drop the ground where they pupate to later emerge as adults, continuing the cycle. The Chinese air potato beetle will not feed on the winged yam, as it is not its host plant.Current methods of air potato plant, bulbil, and tuber removal can be expensive and hard to maintain. The plant is typically sprayed with herbicide or is pulled from the ground, the aerial bulbils are picked from the plant before they drop, and the underground tubers are dug up. The herbicides can disrupt native vegetation, allowing for the air potato to spread further should it survive. If the underground tuber or aerial bulbils are not completely removed, the plant will grow back.

The Chinese air potato beetle is currently being evaluated as a potential integrated pest management (IPM) organism to help mitigate the invasive air potato. The beetle feeds and reproduces solely on the air potato plant, making it a great IPM organism choice. During 2019, we studied the Chinese air potato beetle and its ability to find the air potato plant. It was found the beetles may be using olfactory cues to find the host plant. Further research is conducted at the NFREC to increase natural aggregation of the beetles on air potato to improve biological control of the weed.

Chinese Air Potato Leaf Beetle.

If you have the air potato plant, or suspect you have the air potato plant, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Agents for help!

 

Muscadines–Our Florida Wild Grape

Muscadines–Our Florida Wild Grape

Tasty, edible muscadine grapes are ripening in northwest Florida now. Photo credit: Jennifer Shiver

There is something deeply satisfying about plucking fruit off a plant growing outside and tasting it right off the vine/bush/tree. Since childhood, I have reached carefully through the tiny and numerous thorns of blackberry bushes growing in the woods, hoping the berry I’d worked for was more sweet than tart. One vine-ripe fruit that never disappoints, however, is the native muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia). Granted, before eating for the first time you have to be aware that the thick skin will give way to a gelatinous goo with several seeds, but their refreshing taste on a hot summer day is unlike any other. Beloved by deer and other mammals and birds of all types, it’s hard to find a lot of muscadine grapes available in the woods because the wildlife has likely beaten you to them. You can find their unique leaves year-round, though, so at least you know where to look once the grapes start to form. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention these grapes also go by the term “scuppernong”, which is a colloquial term for the lighter green/bronze (and more common) muscadines in the southeast.

Muscadines are grown commercially for the wine industry throughout Florida.

While tasty on their own, muscadines are most prized for making jelly and wine. We used to have an older Southern Baptist deacon and neighbor who would slip us both, with a wink and an implied promise not to tell the preacher about the wine. Winemaking in Florida is an old tradition, and several local wineries specialize in these sweeter wines, like Chatauqua in DeFuniak Springs. They are often blended with other fruits like blueberry and strawberry. Our Extension colleagues with the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) have a widely recognized viticulture program, and I recommend their resources if you are interested in growing muscadines yourself.

As for wild muscadines, you can find the vines all over the place, from shady forests to sunny beach dunes. The vines can be up to 100 feet long, climbing with the help of small tendrils. Inconspicuous greenish white flowers form in late spring, with fruit ripening in late summer/early fall. It serves you well to learn field identification for the muscadine, as it is a sweet treat on a hot Florida day.

Air Potato Vines and Leaf Beetles

Air Potato Vines and Leaf Beetles

Several Extension offices in the Panhandle are collecting air potato bulbils for National Invasive Species Week. Photo credit: Esther Mudge, Escambia County

The non-native invasive air potato vine (Discorea bulbifera) has wound its way throughout Florida, from pine forests and creek floodplains to backyards. Their heart-shaped leaves are most noticeable in the spring and fall, where they can take over large areas, not unlike their fellow invasive vine, kudzu. In the fall, the plant produces a potato-like tuber called a bulbil, which grows above ground on the vine. The bulbils drop in the winter and then produce new vines the following spring.

The vine’s growth has been uncontrolled or kept back by herbicide for years, until researchers discovered a biological control insect known as the air potato leaf beetle (Liloceris cheni). In the vine’s native Nepal and China, the beetle controls growth by surviving on the leaves of the air potato, its sole food source. After extensive study, the USDA approved the use of these beetles in Florida to control the air potato vine population here. UF IFAS Extension offices statewide have participated in these beetle release programs, providing thousands of beetles to homeowners and property owners seeking to manage the invasive vine using a chemical-free technique. Left alone, air potato vines can smother full-sized trees, blocking the sunlight and causing them to collapse under the weight of the intertwined vines.

From 2012-2015, beetles were able to reduce air potato vine coverage and bulbil density by 25-70% (depending on location and density of beetle population). The active beetle-production phase of a UF IFAS grant has ended, but researchers are committed to the goal of reducing this nuisance species statewide.

To assist with this process, several Extension offices in the Panhandle are sponsoring a bulbil collection during National Invasive Species Week (NISAW, February 23-29).  This effort will serve two important roles: to remove bulbils from the natural environment and to provide a seed source for university researchers seeking to grow air potato vine in a controlled environment, sustaining a continued population of air potato beetles for distribution.

For more information on Air Potato Vines and Leaf Beetles, visit https://bcrcl.ifas.ufl.edu/airpotatobiologicalcontrol.shtml or contact your local County Extension office.

Surprise Showstopper, Bleeding Heart Vine (Clerodendrum thomsoniae)

Surprise Showstopper, Bleeding Heart Vine (Clerodendrum thomsoniae)

As an avid gardener and plant collector you might think I’m hyper-aware of everything growing in my yard. Sadly, I’m just as busy and forgetful as the next person and don’t always remember what’s out there. The silver lining to the distracted auto-pilot life we find ourselves in is that occasionally you get brought back into the moment by a show stopping surprise in the garden.

Bleeding Heart Vine is one of those garden gems. Planted in the bright shade of a pair of oak trees in my Northwest Florida yard, the dark green foliage blends into the background most of the year, but when it flowers look out! Panicles of 5-20 white and red flowers brighten up the shady garden. As the flowers fade, they turn a deep mauve that is just as attractive as the fresh flowers.

Some vines can be aggressive growers, but in the Florida Panhandle Bleeding Heart Vine is a relatively slow grower reaching about 15 feet at maturity. It is classified as a twining vine, but may need a little help supporting itself on a trellis. This vine lacks tendrils or suckers that some vines use to attach to structures, which makes it a little easier to redirect if it starts to grow in an undesirable direction. Don’t want it to climb? Prune to stimulate branching and it gets more of a sprawling, bushy shape.

Bleeding Heart Vine prefers moist, well-drained soil and high humidity. It is hardy to 45°F and may need protection in the winter. Personal observations of this plant have shown stem dieback in the winter, but it has grown back for multiple years without protection in Northern Bay County.

Reference and further information at Floridata Plant Profile #1053 Clerodendrum thomsoniae