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January 06, 2014

Volunteers Battle Rampant Ivy Overtaking Parks

by Tom Banse

Most of us have a workday morning routine. For some, a bit of exercise comes first. For others, it's two cups of coffee over the sports pages.

In Olympia, Washington, teacher Kevin Head rises long before dawn on school days to go alone to a city park. There, his routine begins by asking the rampant ivy vines for forgiveness.

"Thank you ivy for your tenaciousness, your strength," he said. "I ask you to let me take you out for the benefit of the world here."

And then Head leans down with gloved hands and for the next half hour, rips and yanks out as much ivy as he can.

The 56-year-old man works by the light of a single headlamp. Pretty much anything he grabs in this grove of big leaf maples is bound to be ivy. ​​

Head, and hundreds of volunteers like him nationwide, are motivated by a desire to restore the habitat for native plants and birds.

Botanical researchers believe English colonists brought the popular European groundcover to the New World as early as 1727.

Since then, English ivy has become one of the most widespread invasive plants in the U.S., found in about 30 states, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It has also invaded parts of South America, Australia and New Zealand.

At the same time, some gardening societies and nurseries still promote ivy as a useful ornamental plant.

Outside the cultivated garden, English ivy carpets the ground and engulfs tree trunks, weighing down upper branches, and blocking sunlight from reaching the lower levels of vegetation. Responsibility for combating escaped ivy generally rests at the local level. Land owners typically take the approach described by Sylvana Niehuser, the City of Olympia's park ranger.

"English ivy has a waxy property to the leaves. So spraying is not very effective at all. You can't mow it because it is just a tangley mess," Niehuser said. "So you are left with manual control by pulling it."

Niehuser figures it could take decades - if not a century - to pull all the ivy in Priest Point Park alone where Head volunteers. But she says the battle is winnable when you set your sights on smaller plots and saving individual trees.

"We try to focus on prioritizing in large parks like this," she said. "Then in our small parks, we try to work on getting it completely eradicated."

Niehuser mostly relies on volunteers for ivy control in Olympia parks because of staff cutbacks and tight budgets. It’s the same story elsewhere on the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards where escaped ivy is most common. The infestation peters out as soon as you cross into the drier terrain of the American heartland.

Oregon is home to one of the biggest and oldest anti-ivy campaigns in the country. Mary Verrilli manages the No Ivy League, a program within the Portland Parks & Recreation Department.

"One thing that stands out is how much square feet of ivy we have removed," Verrilli said. "This is ivy from the ground. It's been over 4 million square feet of ivy. It's really impressive to see these stats since 1994."

Which is when the No Ivy League started. Of course, with nearly three centuries of growth behind them, the non-native vines have had a big head start.

Super-volunteer Head says he's committed to his ivy pulling routine at least until he retires later this decade. One thing that keeps him going is the pleasure of seeing native plants and birds return.

"I can only get about 10 square feet a day," he said. "But it is thrilling to see it start to uncover."