Here’s a bittersweet solution for your poison ivy woes

It’s a good time of year to beat through the bushes in the remote corners of your property to see what’s been hiding in the shadows. In my case, I’ve been on the hunt for two nasty vines that I’ve been battling for years — Oriental bittersweet and poison ivy.

I’ve got a couple sections of my property that are hard to get into during the bulk of the year. They are thick with undergrowth, fallen limbs and other natural detritus, and they are a bit swampy. But right now the leaves are down and the ground is frozen, making it the best time of year to get in there and clear out the junk.

If you have a neglected section of woodland on your property, chances are it has both poison ivy vines and Oriental bittersweet. They are a nuisance, and it’s worthwhile to get them out. But there’s a trick to both of them.

Poison ivy

No doubt you are familiar with the low-lying plants that run along the ground, with the telltale clusters of three shiny leaves. Many people aren’t aware that poison ivy is actually a vine (and a misbehaving member of the cashew/pistachio family of plants) that prefers to grow up vertical surfaces such as trees — up to 50 feet or more — fed by a central vine that can grow to an inch or more in diameter. That vine is easy to spot — it’s grey, with what looks like hair growing out of it. That hair is actually a mass of roots that keeps the vine firmly attached to the tree.

Whenever you are dealing with poison ivy, you are dealing with a toxic plant that requires great caution on your part. Like the leaves, the vine contains urushiol, the irritant that most of us are allergic to. You shouldn’t touch the vine.

But the good news is the vine — and the foliage above it — can be easily killed. Use your loppers to cut through a section of the vine, then cut through it again a couple inches above that first cut. You should be able to grab that short section of vine with your loppers, then twist the loppers and tear out a couple inches of vine. The plant will die quickly. Be sure to wash off your lopper blade afterwards.

This poor tree has several poison ivy vines growing up it, ranging from pencil diameter to over an inch diameter. I cut all the vines 3 years ago. They are all long dead, but they are still clinging to the tree.

The plant is a goner. The bad news is that dead vine will remain toxic for a long time — many months, if not years. It’s firmly attached to the tree so you can’t tear it off. And if you burn it, you will release urushiol into the air — which you can breath in and suddenly have a very serious health problem on your hands. The safest route is to let nature take its course. The vine will eventually dry out and fall off. This will probably take years.

Oriental bittersweet

Like many other invasive plants, oriental bittersweet was introduced into the United States as an ornamental plant. You may be familiar with its colorful fruit — small clusters of red berries poking out of a bright yellow shell. Very attractive. Many people cut them and make them into holiday wreaths — among them, I’ve discovered, is Martha Stewart. And birds love the berries, so bittersweet spreads like crazy.

The vine itself is easy to spot. Here’s a good guide.

The problem with bittersweet is it will choke out and kill native plants, including the trees it clings to. It wraps so tightly around the host tree it strangles its growth and causes limbs to break off. I’ve never seen a vine that grows more quickly than bittersweet. I’d estimate it can grow about 10 feet a year, and I might be conservative on that.

An Oriental bittersweet vine that has wrapped around a small tree, choking its growth.

The vines can grow surprisingly fat. When I was out cutting them this week, I found a couple that were 3 inches in diameter. And they can grow much thicker than that.

There’s good news and bad news when dealing with bittersweet. The good news is unlike poison ivy, there’s nothing toxic to worry about. Also, the vines are somewhat soft, making it easy to cut through them with loppers. Cut the vine off as close to the ground as you can. The vine that grows up the tree will now be dangling, and you can cut off a good-sized section that’s within reach. The upper unreachable parts will rot within a couple years and will fall down on their own. If you burn your branches in the winter, as I do, you’ll find the vines burn well.

The bad news is this plant just doesn’t die easily. You really need to get it out by the roots, and absent that, you need to revisit that root and keep cutting the new growth. Plus, the birds have probably been spreading the seeds all over your property. Keep and eye out and pull the young vines out by the roots.

I spent a couple days cutting out vines this week. It’s a satisfying way to get outdoors and do something constructive, and next summer your trees will thank you for ridding them of unwanted hangers-on.

John Macone operates a small-scale organic farm in Amesbury, Massachusetts. For up to date info on the farmstand, check out his Facebook page at

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