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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Bittersweet Challenge

Air Date: Week of
Lincoln Fish poses with Allison Bell and her champion bittersweet vine. (Photo: Laurie Sanders)

Oriental bittersweet was brought to the United States from eastern Asia and, until recently, gardening magazines and nurseries were singing its praises. But the colorful plant grows quickly and strangles and kills trees that get in its way. One forester is battling the invasive bittersweet vine and inviting others to join him. Producer Laurie Sanders reports on the Bittersweet Challenge.


CURWOOD: Oriental bittersweet is a classic case of an ornamental plant gone bad. Until recently, gardeners sang its praises: the red and orange-berried vine could grow almost anywhere. And it has – strangling, damaging and even killing trees along the way. There are few options for controlling it. But as Laurie Sanders reports, one forester is getting competitive about eradicating the vine, and trying to have some fun at the same time.

SANDERS: Since its arrival 200 years ago, oriental bittersweet has escaped from cultivation and now grows wild in 25 states, 21 of which have declared it an “invasive weed.” About ten years ago, the state of Connecticut grew so concerned, it outlawed transporting, selling, or distributing oriental bittersweet in any form.

( Photo: Laurie Sanders)

That’s right around the time that one local forester--Lincoln Fish--says he began seeing a lot of it growing in the woods. Fish helps manage thousands of acres of private and public forestland in western Massachusetts.

FISH: I started noticing that when we’d put in an access road or a new log landing or something, many of the jobs would end up having weird plants on them, like bittersweet especially. And so about ten or 15 years ago, I had to admit to myself that in order to do a really good long-term job of forest management, you have to control the exotic invasive plants or else they will take over.

SANDERS: Fish now spends about a third of his time controlling invasive plants for his clients. And bittersweet is the worst of them. When this vine snakes its way into the canopy, it usually gets there by coiling tightly around a tree trunk. The strangled tree contorts and twists in response and its lumber value is reduced to that of firewood. But that's not all it does--bittersweet overruns saplings, shades out native plants, and the weight of the vines in the canopy can take down an entire tree.

Allison Bell’s bittersweet vine measures eight inches across. So far, says forester Lincoln Fish, it’s the largest catch in the Bittersweet Challenge. (Photo: Laurie Sanders)

FISH: A couple of years ago I cut a mammoth bittersweet vine. And I saw it laying on the ground and thought, 'wow, that’d make a great picture', so I asked my co-worker if he’d pick it up and hold it while I took his picture. And he got a little sheepish and said, no, he couldn’t do that, it would be like him posing with my trophy buck. But he would take my picture with it and that’s when the idea sort of first germinated.

SANDERS: The idea: could anyone in Massachusetts find a bittersweet vine that was bigger than this one--which measures six inches across and looks more like a small tree trunk? This spring, Fish decided to take his bittersweet challenge public—sending out mass e-mails and getting on Twitter and Facebook. Right away, he started getting responses.

FISH: This one guy who’s an arborist emailed me and said, “I have been training my entire life for this competition.”


FISH: And then somebody else emailed me and said, “I’m quitting my job and going vine hunting.”

SANDERS: And the competition is why we’re here in Northampton, Massachusetts, along a dusty farm road close to Route 91, on the edge of a floodplain forest. We’re waiting for the new bittersweet queen apparent, Allison Bell, who has found a whopper near this site and claims it’s a contender for the title. But...

FISH: She has not yet submitted an official measurement photo, so that’s what we’re doing here today. We actually need to check on our contestants and make sure they’re telling the truth and not just using trick photography to try to get the glory of being the bittersweet queen or king.

A fine specimen of bittersweet. (Photo: Laurie Sanders)

SANDERS: Bell is a graphic designer, writer, and an intrepid hunter of bittersweet. Within 24 hours of hearing about the contest, she contacted Fish, letting him know she had a potential champion. [A CAR BEEPING IN THE BACKGROUND] Strapped to the hood of her car is the formidable specimen-- three feet long, 25 pounds.

FISH: That is truly an impressive figurehead on the front of your car, may I say.


BELL: Well, I can get her untied if you guys help me lift it off the car.


SANDERS: Setting it on the ground, Fish and Bell study it to find the widest surface to measure.

FISH: Alright, do we have the official measuring device?

SANDERS: Which, just to be clear, is a regular, old measuring tape. The bittersweet challenge has helped bring some humor to an otherwise depressing topic. For his part, Lincoln Fish knows it isn’t going to solve the problems this invasive vine is causing. For him, it’s more about raising awareness. And he’s offering some exciting prizes to stimulate interest.

The final winner will receive not only the title of bittersweet king or queen, but Fish will also personally clear one acre of bittersweet, wherever the winner wants. He’s already heard from people who would like to win the prize -- from private citizens to the National Park Service. Which brings us back to that giant bittersweet vine that Allison Bell cut down. Just how many inches across is that thing?

FISH: Wow.

BELL: Pretty right on eight. And then the short way is a little less than six.

Reporter Laurie Sanders’ daughter Lydia is choked up about the bittersweet vine that is choking this tree. (Photo: Laurie Sanders)

FISH: Well, that would average out to be 7 and that is certainly our new champion. So congratulations.

BELL: It’s certainly a great honor, and I don’t get to be queen of much very often. Today I’m very proud.

SANDERS: Fish snaps the official photo, and then for the grand finale—killing the rest of that 50-year old vine. [CHAINSAW] Just pulling up bittersweet or cutting it down doesn’t do it. After chain-sawing the vine close to the ground, Fish sprays the fresh stump with the herbicide triclopyr, which kills the roots and prevents the stump from resprouting, creating a whole new tangle of bittersweet here.


FISH: You could still find a bigger one.

BELL: I still could.

FISH: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BELL: Well I’m gonna keep looking.

FISH: I can tell by the gleam in your eye that you are up to the challenge.

SANDERS: The bittersweet challenge runs through August 2012. For Living on Earth, I’m Laurie Sanders.



Find out more about Lincoln Fish’s Bittersweet Challenge


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