Conservation district warns residents to be on lookout for invasive species

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — The Cass County Conservation District is asking that Michiganders be on the lookout for a number of vines that might be lurking in woods, yards and parks.

“Native vines are important in our forests for a lot of reasons, from soil stabilization to pollinator habitat,” said Nor Serocki with the local CISMA, “But the invasive ones typically take over and damage trees, shrubs, and fences.”

The SWxSW Corner CISMA, a cooperative invasive species management area helping Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties, wants to help residents find and treat these creepy vines before they get out of control, officials said.

“Thankfully, many of our invasive vines are obvious throughout the year, meaning even now is a good time to keep an eye out.” Serocki said, warning about four vines that have been found in the southwest Michigan area: Black Swallow-wort, Chinese yam, Kudzu and Oriental Bittersweet.

Black Swallow-wort was commonly introduced as an ornamental plant, but quickly escaped and started causing problems. This time of year, home owners can look for long, thin “Milkweed like” seed pods, which hang from the vine.

“By now they would be brown and crispy, though they may still be holding onto some of their fluffy seeds,” Serocki said.

In the spring, residents can also look for the glossy, dark, opposite leaves and dark small purple star shaped flowers. Swallow-wort earned its place on the CISMA’s watch list, since it can kill monarch butterflies, which are already struggling, officials said.

Chinese yam was also brought to the area for its showy looks, but also for its starchy root. The key winter tell on these plants are the “air potatoes” that grow along the vine. These are popular with squirrels, which only helps it spread faster, officials said. During the summer, it will also put on large, spade shaped leaves, which can shade out and kill off other plants.

Oriental bittersweet is especially popular around the holidays for the bright red-orange berries it keeps throughout the winter, even appearing on Pinterest and in the Marth Stewart Magazine. However, this plant can completely strangle trees, making it a bad choice for wreaths or other crafts, said Conservation District officials.

To find the plant, look for bright berries held all along the vine, instead of just at the ends.

“This one can be especially tricky in areas where people plan to do a timber sale or cut trees, since it’s one of the first things to take advantage of having more light,” Serocki said. “Finding Oriental bittersweet and getting rid of it before taking out overstory trees can help the younger trees take over, instead of this invader.”

Kudzu may be the newest to the bunch but is also the most well-known.

“People sometimes call it ‘the vine that ate the south’, but it’s clearly moving north,” Serocki said.

Kudzu was planted during the dustbowl for soil stabilization but can get out of hand in open areas or forest edges. The climbing vine can swamp trees and harm habitat. Right now, it may still have its hairy bean like pods, but next summer it will leaf out with its distinct three-part leaves and bright purple flowers.

“We only know of a handful of places here in Michigan that have kudzu, but southwest Michigan has most of them – very likely there are more patches we just haven’t found yet,” Serocki said.

Residents that find these vines can report them to CISMA directly, or on MISIN.msu.edu. The latter is a program hosted by MSU to help citizens and managers track the spread of invasive species.

If a resident needs help treating a plant, has questions, or is not quite sure what they have, they can contact the CISMA. The grant funded organization is always happy to look at photos, come out for a home visit, or help residents come up with a management plan, Serocki said.

“We’re here to help but can’t do much good if people aren’t sure where to go with questions,” she said. “So, please, if you need to contact the CISMA, call your local conservation district or email eleanor.serocki@macd.org.”

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