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Beware of invasive English ivy

Beware of invasive English ivy

You mow it down. It springs back to life.

You cut it from a tree or the side of your house. It creeps back up.

English ivy often is associated with immortality and Dionysus, the Greek god of fertility, vegetation and wine, who has been depicted as wreathed in ivy.

The ivy that so beautifully wrapped around a mythical figure also is the stuff that kills trees, damages structures and takes over yards.

Alex Niemiera, a professor in the Virginia Tech School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, said the good and bad news about English ivy is one and the same: “It’s the most stress-tolerant evergreen groundcover there is.” And that’s the problem. “If they stopped selling it tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter because it’s so ubiquitous.”

Hedera helix is native to Europe, western Asia and northern Africa. It landed in North America as a landscape plant and escaped into natural areas, becoming prominent on the invasive list. English ivy is an evergreen woody vine that can grow up to 90 feet, according to Virginia Cooperative Extension. The vine climbs or forms dense ground cover and can reach a thickness of 10 inches in diameter.

“It is a popular landscaping plant, but there is no guaranteed method for keeping H. helix out of natural areas or removing it once it has been established,” Niemiera explained.

When English ivy vines up trees, it prevents photosynthesis from happening, causing their demise. It also damages tree bark by holding moisture against the trunk, which leads to fungal rot and a slow death for infested trees.

Ivy carries bacteria that infects maples, oaks and elms. It can spread through vegetative growth, and new plants can grow from cut or broken pieces of stems that root in the soil. Birds carry ivy seeds from place to place.

Trees aren’t the only things affected by English ivy’s invasiveness. The plant climbs using plant roots that form from its stems and excrete a sticky liquid. The adventitious roots push into cracks and fissures in mortar and in any other spaces between rocks, bricks, wooden slats, siding and shingles on buildings. This can loosen and eventually damage the part of the structure where the ivy is growing.

So how do you get rid of it?

“There is no magic bullet for getting rid of English ivy,” Niemiera concluded. “You just have to pull it out and keep on pulling it.”

Loudoun County Master Gardeners recommend the following for getting rid of English ivy:

  • On trees, cut ivy vines near the ground and then again at approximately eye level to make a vine-free band around the trunk.
  • Carefully remove only the cuttings so no damage is done to the bark. The cuttings will try to root, so either let them dry out thoroughly or put them in the trash. Don’t pull the remaining ivy off the tree, because it may take the bark with it. Severed ivy left on a tree will die and eventually fall off.
  • Remove ivy from the ground at least 2 to 3 feet around the base of a tree.
  • If necessary, follow the vine cutting with an application of herbicide to rooted, living cut surfaces.
  • On hardscapes, remove ivy the same as on a tree, and gently pull off vines when they are dead.
  • Removal should be done with care, because the rootlets can damage the structure when pulled off.
  • Because cutting may result in vigorous regrowth at the base of a tree or a structure, vigilance is required to ensure long-term control.