Fighting Climate Change while Saving our Trees from Invasive Vines

America’s natural world is being strangled by an unrelenting foe, one advancing across the country in leaps and bounds. The assailants are invasive vines, introduced to America’s natural habitats by humans. These vines out-compete every native peer and are quickly degrading our ecosystems.

How well a non-native vine species can adapt to a new environment is essentially a game of biological roulette. There’s no telling whether that species of vine will simply die off, reproduce without a noticeable effect, or escape beyond their point of introduction and spread unchecked. This makes it extremely dangerous to introduce a foreign species to a new environment: the consequences of doing so are highly unpredictable. And in this game of roulette, entire ecosystems are at risk.

Invasive Vines Could Kill Nearly 5,000 Trees in Takoma Park, MD Within 5-7 Years

In what may be the first survey of its kind in the nation, an invasive plant specialist walked all 36 miles of the streets and adjacent areas of Takoma Park, Maryland and found that 4,850 trees are in the process of being overwhelmed by invasive vines like English Ivy. 

The startling results in a small city known to highly value its tree canopy could signal that the scale of invasive vine destruction nationwide is far beyond previous assumptions. The study also identifies relatively low-resource, commonsense solutions to the problem. Most of the trees in the survey can be saved in 5-10 minutes by volunteers using common garden clippers and pruning saws.

 Trees play a huge role in sequestering carbon dioxide, cooling urban neighborhoods, and beautifying property. These trees could die within 5-7 years.  The large majority of affected trees were more than 20 years old and some were beyond a century in age.

Planting 5,000 new trees and protecting them to the age of several decades – and some for over a century – would be a fantastically expensive undertaking for the city. Yet saving the same number of trees currently dying in plain sight from invasive vines would cost little beyond educating citizens and supporting local volunteer efforts already underway to eradicate invasive vines. 

Last summer, volunteers organized by CCAN in Takoma Park eradicated deadly vines on over 700 trees in the city. Now the group is launching a weekly Saturday morning program where volunteers sign up to “adopt” between 10 and 100 trees in the city for rescue. 

The CCAN survey cataloged the exact location of troubled trees on residential, commercial, and park property. Volunteers will be given addresses and asked to set out to meet with homeowners and business owners to encourage them to eradicate the vines themselves using quick, simple methods. Or property owners can elect to have volunteers do it for them. By autumn, the goal is to have rescued all 4,850 trees in the city.

CCAN hopes the Takoma Park survey and volunteer system will become a model for other city, county and state programs nationwide to save affected trees.

Invasive vine specialist Jesse Buff, discusses his work cataloging the almost 5,000 trees across Takoma Park, MD that are currently threatened by invasive vines. During his research, conducted in February 2021, he compiled the data that has informed our shocking invasive vine report (linked above.)

The Threat

Invasive vines are deadly. They alter any ecosystem on a fundamental level, eventually reducing it to a monoculture. These vines have none of the checks and balances that their native counterparts have developed over millions of years, meaning they can proliferate unopposed. As a result, in the United States alone, invasive plants are able to increase their total leaf area by a shocking 3 million acres every year. That’s equivalent to three Grand Canyons annually. Moreover, the 5,000 invasive species introduced to the country cost the economy roughly $138 billion annually.

Invasive Vines and Climate Change

The problem caused by invasive vines will only worsen in a warming climate, with higher CO2 concentrations. The large increase of carbon dioxide is, and will continue to be, a huge boon for plant life in some regions. While plants will be able to grow faster, and photosynthesize at an increased rate, the downside is that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is indiscriminate of what plant species it helps grow. Invasive species are the ones who will likely be able to seize the opportunity most, and certain invasive plants such as vines have been proven to benefit most from more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Nitrogen, too, can cause some invasive plants to spread even faster.

Not only are some vines more responsive to higher carbon dioxide levels, but the traits which make the most successful invasive vines are also the traits most beneficial to their surviving climate change. Invasive plants, including vines, have faster growth rates than their native counterparts, longer growing seasons, resistance to drought and flooding, the ability to grow in a variety of soil conditions and shade levels, rapid evolution from short generation times, and their seeds are extremely survivable. These traits all mean that dominant invasive plants thrive on ecological disturbance.

The invasives’ survivability means they are always first to the scene, no matter the catastrophe. When forests are ravaged by storms, floods, and droughts, invasive plants rush in to fill the gaps created by dead or dying trees. They smother any native seedlings that might have taken the opportunity to sprout their first leaves, and instead, create a monoculture, and further diminishing native recovery of both plants and animals in an ecosystem.

As temperatures increase, native plants will have to migrate northward, to follow their ideal temperature range. However, they are less suited to do this than their invasive counterparts, who have faster reproduction cycles and greater propagation ability. Invasive plants, able to survive in a wider range of temperatures, will be able to keep surviving  where they are, and also move to new habitats, previously unsuitable for their growth, is hot enough for their expansion. In all, it’s even more bad news for native plants.

The Invasive Vine Invasion of the Washington DC Area

The Solutions

Planting new Trees is Good, but Saving Old Trees is Just as Important

Many of our current proposals to take on climate change involve planting many, many trees (The Trillion Trees Project gives us a good ballpark number of the amount of trees needed to remove and sequester some of the carbon we already have in the atmosphere). Trees come with many advantages, including the ability to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis, and store yet more carbon in their woody trunks.

It seems only natural that planting as many trees as physically possible is the best way forward to tackle climate change. While this is true to some extent, it is equally vital that the trees already capturing carbon stay alive. It takes roughly 15 years for a tree to grow to its optimal carbon sequestering capacity, while the mature trees we have today are in danger. For us to ensure our trees’ survival, we need to make sure they are free from the strangling effect of invasive vines. We must continue to fight for our trees as hard as we work to plant new ones.

Save Trees from the Onslaught

As we plan to plant millions of trees to store carbon, we must also save those we already have. And, while fighting back against the continuous onslaught of invasive vines certainly seems futile at first glance, the good news is that removing English Ivy and similarly invasive vines is easy and will only take 20 minutes. 

Watch Mike Tidwell Save a 150 Year Old Tree: It's so Easy

What can you do?

  • Volunteer as a Weed Warrior to save trees. Start your own group in your neighborhood to remove English Ivy and other invasive vines from around your community.
  • Take to the streets and remove yours and your neighbors’ invasive vines (with permission, of course). 
  • Volunteer with environmental groups that fight vines in your area.
  • Spread the word! Tell your friends and family about how to identify and remove invasive plants in their backyards. Use our flyer to inform your community. Wide awareness is needed for successful eradication of invasive plants.

Solutions at the Policy Level

Dealing with invasive vines needs to be utilized as a part of the solution to climate change. Invasive vines are a serious threat to our tree canopy and carbon storage capabilities.  We can work towards legislative action to control and protect our trees from invasive vines. There are many approaches: creating Weed Boards that have resources to conduct removal projects; enforcing weed code violations; and planting native species as a replacement to invasive plants.

Additional Resources