West of Woolwich: Coming soon to a fencerow near you

Posted Tuesday, June 28, 2011 in Opinion

West of Woolwich: Coming soon to a fencerow near you

Rosa multiflora

… if it isn’t already there.

by Fred Kahrl

I took a ride around Bath this evening looking for aliens. I had seen them vigorously rising from the fields and hedgerows in Woolwich, but I was frankly surprised at how many were well established in the city.

Yet, there they were, primped and carefully tended like the favored botanical perennials gracing gardens close at hand.

But this is no pampered cultivar brought home from the greenhouse to join the beloved  bloomers on the grounds of many a local residence.

No.

It is the latest and most vigorous invasive alien plant that promises to quickly exceed the annoyance of its more notorious predecessors, “Bamboo” (Japanese Knotweed), “Purple Loosestrife” (Lythrum salicaria), Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), and Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus).

It is the Multiflora Rose (Rosa Multiflora), and it is just now fading from its explosive blooming over the past few weeks.

Gosh! Isn’t it just lovely!

This second photo is taken from a state website where it appears first on “Indiana’s List of Most Unwanted Pest Species.”

Under the heading “Threat”, the site continues: 

“Multiflora rose occurs throughout the eastern half of the United States and in Washington and Oregon. It tolerates a wide range of soil, moisture and light conditions and is able to invade fields, forests, prairies, some wetlands and many other habitats. Multiflora rose grows aggressively and produces large numbers of fruits (hips) that are eaten and dispersed by a variety of birds. Dense thickets of multiflora rose exclude most native shrubs and herbs from establishing and may be detrimental to nesting of native birds. It is against Indiana State Law to plant any variety of Rosa multiflora without a permit issued by the division director (IC 14-24-12-5).  Note – do not buy, sell, or plant multiflora rose.”

A few years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find “Rosa” in Sagadahoc County. But she is here now, so stand by! The reference above to “grows aggressively” is an understatement of monumental proportions.

If you don’t believe me, take a drive soon before all the blossoms are gone, and take a census. And keep in mind that the cute little “Rosas” just peeking up through the grass or out of the hedgerows will be big enough to swallow a full-sized car in two or three years.

In fact, Rosa’s growth and “spread” put both the Bamboo and Bittersweet to shame and leaves the Loosestrife and Russian Olive in the dust. And as a climbing vine it can easily swallow the Bittersweet, which previously has threatened to become Maine’s version of the Rebel forest-swallowing “Kudzu”.

I expect that by next year I will see Rosa begin climbing up and over Bittersweet because the same birds that “distribute” the invaders’ seeds poop in the same places again and again. (Yes, dear readers … “distribute” is science-speak for the most effective seed-spreading methodology in nature.) Not only does the avian affection for Rosa’s hips guarantee that the alimentary elimination of the seeds is far from the parent plant, but each seed is lovingly delivered with a tiny dose of fertilizer. 

Also, Rosa does not mind if her seeds come to earth in the densest thicket of competitors imaginable. She will not be resisted, sending long tendrils up out of the gloom to find the sun, and then will out-compete her hedgerow predecessors.

And her final trick? 

Rosa does not grow from a central stem. Rather, she grows like an over-endowed Daddy Longlegs. And by year two or three, the “legs” (or canes) are long enough to curve gracefully back to earth where, when they touch, they set roots and grow another plant.

It would not be straining the metaphor to say that Rosa Muntiflora is marching across Southern Maine.

There is nothing in the literature to suggest that there is a naturally occurring control for Rosa … no bug, no blight, no herbivore. Like all of her invasive oriental cousins, she is finding life in the New World delightful.

Meanwhile, official Maine has been distracted by the need to counter the threat of Eurasian Milfoil invading our ponds and rivers, and trying to stop Hemlock Wooly Adelgid at the border. These both pose real and serious threats to keystones of Maine’s traditional economic health: recreation and forest products. With limited resources to evaluate and counter other invasive species that are initially less threatening, it is not surprising that Rosa has not yet been listed as an unwanted settler. 

And with local gardeners pleasantly surprised to find Rosa as a volunteer addition to their flower beds and landscaping, she is assured a valuable foothold in both urban and rural environments.

My father retired to the Ohio countryside near the shire town where he was reared. In attempting to revive the pastureland around his country home, he had to deal with stands of Multiflora Rose that, having started as a single plant, had grown to the size of small houses.

(Multiflora Rose is on Ohio’s official list of Top Ten invasive plants.)

“Bush hogs” were out of the question … large excavators had to be used to rip up these burgeoning thatches of interwoven plants, dump trucks were hired to haul them away, men were hired to burn the towering piles before the hips could ripen.  Father complained about the expense for years thereafter.

Father is gone now, and the new owners of the old farmstead are absent much of the year, and did not spring from farmer families. Rosa is again filling up the fields.

I am sure that they also think she is lovely if they happen to be in residence in June.

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