Saturday, January 8, 2011



PAINTING: Sunflowers / S. Shawcross / Oil on canvas / 20 x 20 / $395

Sometimes, against all reason and good sense, ya gotta laugh:

EXCELLENT NEWS!!! October 2, 2013.As per the Ottawa Citizen: Cappucino at Carleton University and her team have released a bug somewhere in the vicinity of Ottawa (the famous bug from the Ukraine) to combat DSV. Similar success to purple loosestrife is hoped for.

COMMENTARY: I broke the story that dog-strangling vine had invaded Chelsea in May of 2004. I had wandered out to do the spring gardening and that silly weed seemed to be all over the place. I mean ALL OVER the place. It had come from across the road with a vengeance. I hadn't noticed it across the road really until that spring morning when I realized with horror that my usual fall clean-up of raking the leaves from the front of the property to the back meant I had spread the seed over my entire property. Not knowing what the stuff was I phoned the Department of Agriculture. I was a little disconcerted when the scientist I described it to on the phone said "I'll be right there." How often does that happen? He arrived immediately to peer at my now labeled "dog-strangling vine". He wandered all over my property and up and down the roads. He seemed a little excited. Over coffee he talked about the "Giant Hogweed" of Wakefield. It seems funny to me now to see all the ruckus about it in the press. At least with Giant Hogweed you have a chance to erradicate the stuff! But the DSV... well that's... well... it's a whole other ballgame. The stuff has spread exponentially. I see that the Chelsea Community Centre is offering a course on alien invasives so this blog will be very very long as I want to ensure that the information I gathered (granted somewhat dated now) is included here in the public arena. I remember going into the bowels of a building on the Department of Agriculture grounds and going into a room that opened up a secret wall where inside were shelves filled with files and files and more files. But that's a long story. Suffice to say, what fun I had really digging about... There is of course much more to do and research. If only a magic fairy would give me some money to travel to Vavilov's Russia to find the full story... But that's beside the point... If you like horror stories... here's the blog followed by the research articles. They are somewhat dated. I remember phoning the newly created Alien-Invasive Division of the Federal Government at the time. The man I talked to had never heard of dog-strangling vine or swallowwort (as it is sometimes referred to). I assume that has changed. Anyway dated as they may be you get the idea here...


Oh Spring in the Gatineaus! What luscious awakening of the garden, the sweet promise of lilacs and lily of the valley wafting in the fresh new air. Spring. 'Tis a season that has brought poets to the point of bursting out Latin phrases in its praise. And so, I am no different. "Vince toxicum rossicum" I say, standing in my flowerbeds, trowel in hand, freshly emerged from winter hibernation. "Yes," I say eyeing the lethal-looking spikes of dog-strangling vine tunneling up from the ground, "spring indeed is here."

This year will be different I figure. I've concluded that if I can't change reality then surely I can change my attitude towards it. (I'm always concluding that. Lord knows why.) Yes, it is true that some things are lost for me now; the sound of cicadas in the tall grass, the leisurely leap of toads, the carpet of blue forget-me-nots draped like a sky mirror along the hill beneath the pines, the flutter of monarchs in the morning sun. Lost yes. Perhaps. But I have learned when given lemons; make lemonade. Even this Demon-seed from hell must have its redeeming features.

Sure it’s hard to find good things to say about the highly aggressive alien invasive dog-strangling vine (DSV) from the Ukraine. DSV has phyto-chemicals in its matted impenetrable tangle of roots that ruthlessly massacres the root systems of any other vulnerable plant in its vicinity. (Surely this could be a good thing. What if we pureed it and bottled it? Could we maybe sell it as a natural herbicide? There! See! Its not so hard is it?)

DSV has chemicals in its leaves that lethally and efficiently slaughter the wee helpless newborns of monarch butterflies that mistake it for milkweed at egg-laying time. (Okay, so maybe it doesn't look so good here trying to find the bright side. It’s all because of the butterfly. If only it could have been the great black cat-eating rat of Gatineau or the long fanged tufted viper snake of Larrimac! But no. It had to be the light sweet fragile endangered monarch butterfly! Oh so what! We can still puree it and bottle it and sell it as a natural pesticide.)

If force-fed in large quantities to man's best friend, DSV poisons them into a tortured death that is a gruesome sight to behold. (If there were a great black cat-eating fanged rat of Gatineau I think we could all agree this could come in handy.)

DSV is a highly aggressive invasive vine that forms impenetrable masses in sun shade rain shine soil and gravel. (Yeah well. We can sell it as a landslide protection plant. No? And what’s more, when we pot it to sell we don't need to add those annoying little identification things they add to perennials that stipulate proper growing conditions. It just grows anywhere. Bonus.)

DSV produces copious amounts of seeds that have an unprecedented 90% rate of germination. It grows two inches overnight, four if it rains… (You know, in some circles you might call this a sustainable resource. I mean really. What if nuclear war breaks out tomorrow in Kazabazua and we have to go back to our Neanderthal way of living with nothing but sticks and stones and no petroleum byproducts readily at hand anymore and we need vines to build grass huts to stave off the hostile winter winds? I mean, what then eh? I think we can all agree that DSV would be essential in that event.)

DSV is strong. It grows over six feet and when you pull it out it grows back practically overnight. (And so, when all else fails and we've resorted to babbling in the asylum, the baskets we could weave out of this stuff would be amazing.)

What, you might ask, has given me this brave new outlook on the horror of dog-strangling vine (DSV)? It was a quote I read by a native elder and healer. "The elders believe that if a plant begins to grow in profusion it is a sign that it has come as a medicine for the people " If there is any truth to this belief then surely this can't be good: we've been sent poison instead of medicine. You can't imagine what fanciful notions this has led me into thinking over the long hard winter.

Oh well. Carpe diem vince toxicum rossicum, I always say.

26 May 2004 Valley Voice

Kentucky Bleu Grass Blues

So I answered the phone.

"Allo?", says he.

"Yes" say I.

"Allo Ms. Sawcroix, I am Jean with de Weed Guy?"

"Oh yes," I said, "thank you for calling me back."

"We left you an estimate dere?"

"You did?"

"Oh yes?" says Jean who seemed to have this predilection for ending every sentence with a question mark.


"Maybee on de door dere?"

"Oh," I said, "I haven't been out yet today."

"Its dere? Maybee? I don't know? We can do dis then?"

"You can?" I said feeling suddenly like I needed to respond in kind with a question mark.

"Oh yes!" says Jean, finally with an exclamation.

"So you saw it then?"

"Oh yes. Just a few weeds dere. We can treat it. It’s Nature's Roadway. Best! No weeds in tree, maybe less years."

"You saw the dog-strangling-vine then?"

"Wats dat?" asks Jean.

"It’s a highly aggressive alien plant species from the Ukraine," I ventured.

"Is it a weed?" asks Jean.


"No problem! We treat with Nature's Roadway. No pesticides. It take maybee a bit longer… maybe tree, maybee less years. Guaranteed."

"So you know dog-strangling vine then?"

"Oh yes. Kills all de weeds." says Jean moving into exclamation again.

"Now this stuff," I said, "the best scientists in the world can't figure out how to kill it."

"Oh?" says Jean with a pause.

"Yes" I said.

"Its from the Ukraine?"


"Did maybee someone come from the Ukraine to visit you?"

"No." I said. "Its all over the place in Ottawa."

"It’s a weed?"


"Nature's Roadway will kill all weeds. You maybee notice a leetle red under de leaves dere but dat's no worry. Tree years, maybe less. Nice lawn. Kentucky Bleu Grass."

"It kills all the other plants around it." I said.

"Oh" says Jean.

"It has a germination rate of over 90%."

"No problem!" says Jean suddenly enthused. "Nature's Roadpath will kill all seeds."

"It kills Monarch butterflies" I said.

"Oh" says Jean.

"Three years of heavy dosages of Round-Out won't kill it." I said.

"Round-Out! Sacre-bleu!" says Jean.

"They can't find any natural predators here."

"Oh." says Jean.

"Yes." I said.

"Caleece" he says.

"It grows over six feet tall."

"Oh" says Jean.

"So you saw it then," I ventured after a long pause.

"Maybee I talk to my supervisor."

"Yes" I said after another long pause.

"Maybee I take dat estimate and talk to my supervisor."

"Yes Jean." I said.

"Tank you Ms. Sawcroix for calling de Weed Guy."

"And thank you Jean." I said.

So I answered the phone again.



"Allo Ms. Sawcroix. Dis is Jean from de Weed Guy."

"Yes Jean"

"I talk to my supervisor and 'ee says to use Round-Out"

"It doesn't work."


"My supervisor says maybee we are sorry Ms. Sawcroix dat de Weed Guy can't help you."

"Thank you for calling back Jean."

"Tank you."

Sometimes it’s the small things in life. The little dreams we all have. I'm remembering how I felt when Jean told me about those green fields of Kentucky Blue Grass. If only I could capture that feeling again.


***If you would like a current pdf discussion paper on DSV, a reader of my blog kindly provided me with this link:

The invasion of the alien plant Vincetoxicum rossicum or Dog-Strangling Vine (DSV) currently spreading in Chelsea owes its origins to the Department of Agriculture’s Experimental Farm in Ottawa. In 1942 and 1943 they grew fields of Vincetoxicum unwittingly setting in motion the serious infestation that has now taken hold of the Ottawa area. In all fairness, scientists there and across the continent did not know then what they know now. However, despite warnings from publications in the 1970s and from at least one of its own scientists as early as 1985, the Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies have failed thus far to fund research or meaningfully help those in the field desperately trying to contain it. DSV is out of control in a number of areas of Canada, decimating eco-systems rapidly and ruthlessly. What scientists did not know then, is now keeping some of them awake at night.

Dog-strangling vine is an alien invasive species. That means it is not part of the native flora so no insects, disease or animals exist here that will help keep it in check. In its native habitat, the Ukraine, it is ironically listed on the endangered species list.

In 1985, a botanist for Agriculture Canada, W.G. Dore collected a specimen of DSV opposite Carleton University. The specimen is carefully preserved for posterity in Agriculture Canada’s Herbarium collections along with label notes. Dore states the infestations were “undoubtedly from the old introduction to the Botanic Garden at [the] Experimental Farm which is about 2 km away to [the] north, and from which others have been noted mainly in [a] due E direction.” It is Dore’s stark warning that speaks to present day reality. “In time to come,” he states “this is going to be a serious pest throughout [the] City.”

In 1988, Dore continued to collect specimens. He collected one at Carlyle Avenue and writes an unusually extensive note: “A seed has apparently been wafted down from the old infestation around [the] Arboretum at [the] Experimental Farm….” He goes on “All this is written because it is obvious that the infestation starting at [the] Experimental Farm is expanding greatly by wind-blown seeds and it will be [a] troublesome pest in the future; then some weed biologist may wish to plot it up and report its progress! (not me!)”

In late June 2004 at the gardens of Ottawa’s Experimental farm on Prince of Wales Drive, brides in long white dresses pose beside brightly coloured flowers. Beneath the hedges DSV grows inconspicuously in the shadows. It is not surprising to find it here. Dore noted it poetically when he collected a specimen here in 1976. “This interesting species is now spectacular for about 100 metres sticking out of the cedar hedge along the highway, northward from the traffic-circle at [the] Arboretum, its dead stems and seed-discharging pods showing in the morning sun.” Unlike all of the other specimens of Vincetoxicums in the Herbarium, this particular one has a letter attached. Dore took a photo of the infestation. On his note he states “No photo: see directive 150.” Directive 150 is a file number listed on a letter addressed to Dore. “Returned herewith are your requestions of October 14 and 26 for film processing. Because of our restricted budget, we cannot absorb further cost in this area during the present fiscal year. In addition, requests for films can no longer be accepted. I trust that you will understand our position in this matter.” It is signed A. Giroux.

Not far from the Arboretum, a white sign marks the Fletcher Wildlife Garden. Filled with native flora, the Garden is a showcase for Mother Nature in her natural splendor. Here, DSV climbs over the bushes, under the trees, lining the pathways and filling the forest openings. Its’ small brown flowers etch the grasses in the fields a dull brown where volunteers spend their days filling wheel barrels with DSV. The Fletcher Wildlife Garden has inadvertently become a showcase for what happens when Mother Nature is assaulted.

In areas near Dow’s Lake, and all along the railway corridor and waste places of Carleton University, on the bike path to Vincent Massey Park, DSV has replaced local vegetation with a vengeance. The students come and go and in boarding houses throughout the city specimens of DSV can be found creeping up walls and lying in ditches. Throughout the years the number of locations of specimens collected for Agriculture Canada’s Herbarium mounts: Dow’s swamp, Rideau Canal, Carling Avenue, Moodie Drive, Beechwood Cemetery, Dow’s Lake, Galt Street, Nortel grounds, Bell’s Corners, South shore Rideau River, Lascelles, Aylmer and Chelsea.

The “old introduction to the Botanic Gardens” is not hard to trace. The first records in 1931 and 1932 of Vincetoxicums are recorded as having been collected at the rear of the Central Experimental Farm’s Chemistry building and in waste places outside the Central Experimental Farm Arboretum. The now familiar DSV, the rossicum variety, was known to have been introduced and grown by botanists later in a fashion reminiscent of a “penny-dreadful” mystery from the forties.

If we learn anything from history, we know that when countries go to war, money is found where money never was. When Allied Forces faced a rubber shortage because regular supply routes to southeast Asia were inaccessible, Agriculture Canada’s scientists had a ticket to fund research. They worked in collaboration with the Allies, particularly the United States to discover a rubber substitute. In a history of the Experimental Farm available on the internet it states “The Botany Division… made a thorough survey of both native Canadian and other plants that could be grown in Canada for a supplementary source of natural rubber.” They found the most promising native plant was the common milkweed. It is the “other plants” that are not mentioned. DSV, a native to the Ukraine, is related to milkweed. At the time, it was sometimes classified as such and also sometimes imported under milkweed’s scientific name. Inside its stems was the new liquid gold: latex.

The History goes on to explain milkweed’s other virtues, its floss and seeds. The seeds and floss were water-resistant, lightweight and above-all, plentiful. They were an excellent substitute for kapok, the material used in soldier’s life-jackets. They clearly would need an awful lot of plants. “With the cooperation of school children, 1200 lb (550 kg) of seed and 650 lb (300 kg) of floss were collected. The National Research Council and the Royal Canadian Navy found the floss to be a good substitute and so the following year [1943] school children collected over 120 000 bags of milkweed pods for the production of a kapok substitute. However, cultivation of milkweed proved difficult; it was more satisfactory to collect pods from natural sources than to grow the plant as a farm crop.” It is not explained why cultivation proved difficult, particularly given the invasive nature of the introduced weed which can tolerate virtually every growing condition. It is not noted why natural sources were deemed more satisfactory.

We do not know if DSV is included in the 120,000 bags of milkweed pods. But in 1942, we do know that the Central Experimental Farm at least in Ottawa was growing fields of DSV and children were collecting their pods. The seed source came from a botanical garden in what was then known as Konigsburg, Germany. J.M. Gillett carefully records a specimen grown from the seeds on the Experimental Farm on 2 July 1940. The yellowed specimen is still there with its little pocket of seeds, carefully mounted on paper inside a file, inside a slot high on a shelf among many shelves, kept behind locked doors down in the basement of the Experimental Farm’s Herbarium building. Dr. Gillett is now 86 and remembers the fields that once stood in the place the where the Fletcher Wildlife Garden now stands. He served in England during the war with the airforce joining the Experimental Farm after the war. At the time he collected the specimen he was working as a summer employee prior to joining the forces.

Why Nazi Germany, whose scientists were also researching rubber substitutes since WWI, would have permitted the shipment of seeds to aid the Allies remains an intriguing mystery we may never solve. Dr. William Minshall, now 92, remembers those days. He was looking for the rubber substitute in the lab where they would extract the latex using various chemicals such as benzene. “We offered to test any specimen that was brought to us.” He states that they were not selectively breeding nor engineering the plant in any way. Minshall was not connected to the growing or harvesting of the plant and like Gillett remembers them growing in the open field. Neither of the men know anything about how the seeds arrived from Konigsburg, Germany. What we do know is that two years later, H.A. Senn and D.C. MacIntosh are busily recording samples in the Herbarium taken from Agriculture Canada’s “Systematic Garden bed 107”. Fields of Vincetoxicum were deliberately grown for research. Vincetoxicum rossicum, the one now problematic in Chelsea and Ottawa, is noted as “Rubber Sample 167” on July 7, 1942.

It is interesting to speculate on whether or not Germans or the Allies were researching the plants other quality: it is a “powerful vesicant.”,So says the book on Plant Toxicology concerning the toxin Tylophorine found in Vincetoxicums. A vesicant is a blistering agent. Germany, the USA and England were known to have been developing “blistering agents” as weapons of chemical warfare during and between the two world wars. The same chemical is presently being studied for its effects on mammary cancer cells. Dr. Minshall says they were not researching this aspect. They did conclude that it was the Russian dandelion that had the best source of latex.

In the fields, the children and the scientists did their civic duty for Crown and Country even as the war raged on. At the end of the day, nothing expected came of the experiments. The war ended and history moved forward. Little did anyone know, that a new war was just beginning. A war that lacks the political will to fund.

In 1957 a man named R.J. Moore collected another specimen of Vincetoxicum rossicum on the Prescott Highway outside the Chemistry building of the Experimental Farm. He notes it as “an escape of unknown origin.” He also notes its chromosome number 2n=22. On another label it notes this specimen collected (2n=22) was a “similar spec” as one he collected from the Arboretum in 1945.

It is entirely possible Moore had a nodding aquaintance with another man who worked at Energy Mines and Resources (EMR) on the grounds of Agriculture Canada. Perhaps not. But it is possible that the man who worked for EMR inadvertently brought the seeds home with him, maybe in the laces of his shoes, or the cuff of his pants. The first infestation of Vincetoxicum was noticed in the vicinity of this man’s home who lived in Chelsea during the 1950s. Neighbours along Highway 105’s “ground zero” remember the plant from the 1950s onwards. A few odd ones would show up in their gardens. They would pull them out. Single plants in the shade can be relatively inconspicuous and slow to reproduce so many simply let them grow in the wild parts of their property as part of the background greenery where Mother Nature normally takes care of itself. No one knew enough to arm Mother Nature who remained defenseless against an alien invasion.

A chance event happened in the 1980s. Scientists call it a “forest gap” situation. A small cottage next to the man’s house burned to the ground. Eventually trees were cleared and another house was built. The sun now courted the vine and the marriage would prove fruitful. Whereas stands of Vincetoxicum rossicum in the shade can subsist for years bearly producing anything, five year old stands of DSV in the sun are prolific. Soon the ditches began filling up with DSV, replacing the usual roadside flora. By the time current residents in the area realized they had a problem on their hands, it was too late for some to save their property. For them it might feel like the Nazi’s in a perverse way won a war they hadn’t realized they were fighting.

This all seems a likely scenario, however, just as easily, someone in the area could have planted a perennial taken from a garden anywhere near an infestation or have returned home to Chelsea after walking through an infested area in Ottawa. Or Toronto. Or the Eastern Townships. Or in any of the myriad places in southern Ontario. Or in any of the five parks in Eastern Ontario that now host DSV.

In October 2003, a specimen was collected north of Lascelles, east of Lac Johnston in Quebec. The collector notes “about 50 mature plants in a semi-natural area adjacent to a flower garden.” The probable source of infestation was that the “landowner had moved from Gleneagle (Chelsea, Quebec) bringing garden perennial plants with her.” It has been added to the Herbarium collection high on a shelf, locked away with all the other specimens.


Note: Fran Lawlor no longer works for the Nature Conservancy.

Fran Lawlor wishes someone would fire her. It is said tongue and cheek but there is a sense of dead-pan seriousness in the statement. Lawlor has what some might consider the worst job in North America. She is the Swallowwort Manager for the Nature Conservancy in Jefferson County, New York. In the States, Dog-strangling vine is known as Swallowwort.

When Lawlor goes to work each day she can go out on a peninsula called Henderson Shores. Here there is state land totaling two thousand acres and everything that is upland is affected by DSV. For hundreds of acres DSV is all you see. Lawlor draws a word-picture to illustrate. “As you stand in the middle of an area that’s infested and you turn 360 degrees, in every direction you look there is a uniform cover of swallowwort which is just totally unnatural for the northeast except in a cattail marsh. You look into the woods as far as you can look and all you see is swallowwort and all you see under it… is swallowwort. The wildflowers are gone. The trilliums are gone. The spring ephemerals are mostly gone. The summer ones for sure. In areas dominated by swallowwort it is quiet. There are no bobolinks. There are no meadow larks. There are no sparrows.” A study by Lawlor has just shown that the effects of DSV on grassland birds has been devastating. In the fields of DSV, there is no natural hum of insects because in stands of DSV there are no arthropods. “It is quiet”repeats Lawlor.

Grenadier Island, across from Henderson Shores, can be likened to a hellworld: one big quiet island of DSV. Here foresters are concerned about regeneration of trees because DSV is shading out or smothering everything, including new saplings. Elsewhere in the States it has taken over where pastures aren’t renovated, i.e where there is no grazing or rotating. The animals themselves won’t eat it. And perhaps that’s a good thing. At the Poisonous Plant Research Centre in Utah they fed DSV to a goat for three days. “The goat died” says Lawlor matter-of-factly.

Lawlor has worked with the Nature Conservancy for seven years. It is a global non-profit organization whose mission is to promote biodiversity by preserving natural habitats. The organization has been around for at least 50 years and many may be surprised to learn it uses herbicide on weeds including DSV. Round-up and Garlon are the ones of choice here by landowners and the Conservancy. They must be used consistently, albeit in lowering doses, for five years. Lawlor agrees it’s a desperate act. “It’s really depressing.” Lawlor says, “I feel like we’re going to be using chemicals until the glaciers come or until we find a long-term solution.”

Round-up is the subject of some controversy. Its producer Monsanto has published data supporting its benign effects on human health and ecosystems. Opponents have published equally compelling if not overwhelming evidence contradicting these claims. Monsanto, whose patent on Round-Up ran out in the year 2000 has been developing genetically engineered crops resistant to Round-up in an effort to entice farmers to buy Monsanto’s seeds.

The decision to use chemicals is pragmatic for Lawlor. If they can’t dig DSV out then they spray it with chemicals. On Henderson Shores however, they are “standing back and letting it go.” It does not make Lawlor’s job as Swallowwort Manager easy. “Some days I think I’m just not going to succeed. Some days I just…” Lawlor groans. “We just are restricted resource-wise,” she says, echoing the sentiments of Canadians working on the problem. “None of us [scientists and those working in the field of invasive management] are particularly optimistic. It’s hard to get policy-makers to pay attention.”

How two thousand acres of state land became a natural wasteland seems hard to believe. Lawlor says “What amazes me just in the seven years since I’ve been paying attention is that it has increased dra-ma-ti-cally. I’m shocked. Just shocked.”It is the one time that Lawlor shows any emotion but it is short-lived. She speaks again with little inflection.

“Botanists in Central New York were talking about DSV as being evil as early as the 70s. Location by location it began getting out of control. “She believes “Prevention is going to be the cheapest way. Education is our main effort right now. We’re asking people to get out on their land and identify it when it is small and dig it out if they don’t want to use chemicals but they gotta get the root structure out.” They are also recommending that people “stay out of infested areas during seed dispersal to prevent seed dissemination to unaffected areas and to clean boots, ATVs and other equipment if they do.” Lawlor says “By alerting people we’re hoping to keep down this exponential expansion that’s going on right now” It is what seems like Lawlor’s last gasp for optimism. That and the hope for research.

Steven Smith of Urban Forests Associates Inc in Toronto must know how she feels. His company handles all of the natural forests within the city. The situation there he describes as catastrophic. Hundreds of acres are affected in the metropolitan area. In places it is exactly like Jefferson County across the border to the south.

“I’m scared. Darn scared” says Smith. Why? “Because nobody is doing anything about it. But even if they were I don’t know what they could do, considering its so widespread. Short of spraying entire roadsides with chemicals which would kill everything.” Smith, who wrote an article on DSV management 10 years ago, like Lawlor uses chemicals. Like Lawlor, they’ve tried cutting, mowing, burning, mulching, introducing other native invasives, and covering with black plastic. None of these methods worked although Smith admits digging it up “might work on individual plants but you can’t do that over acres and acres.“Smith says “The only method that worked was chemical. “The one that works best is Round-up Transorb.” Transorb has a concentration six times the potency of the one available over the counter. It is only available to those licensed to use them. For DSV, the only proper way to treat the plants with chemicals is by wearing a glove, dipping it into the chemical solution and then stroking each individual vine from top to bottom.

Stroking each individual vine from top to bottom is not a likely solution for Toronto. Smith explains. “It’s spreading everywhere like crazy. And its done most of that in the last 15 years. All of the colonies are starting to coalesce. It’s popping up all over the place. Some meadows are chock-full of them. There aren’t many forests that can keep it out.” Like Lawlor,, Smith says “Quite often the problem is so severe we have to step back and let it go.”He, like Lawlor holds on to a thread of optimism. “A friend of mine has seen some sickly looking plants at one spot recently so there might be a disease or fungus that is starting to take advantage of this abundant food source. But it is just one little spot in one little field.”

All of the scientists and horticulturists spoken with used the word “evil” to describe infestations of DSV, as if attempting in their own way to explain what must seem to those charged with the responsibility of ridding areas of DSV to be a problem of biblical proportions. All of them say there has been an explosive growth in DSV in the last 15 years. “It’s popping up everywhere,” repeats Smith. It is a phrase that heard from others.

Dr. Naomi Cappuccino of Carleton University, Ottawa and one of only two researchers in Canada working on the problem explains why the problem of DSV has seemingly sprung up overnight. There are three possibilities. “Exponential growth always looks like that. It starts out slow and you don’t notice it and then it blows up in your face. And that could be what we’re seeing: We’re finally seeing it blow up in our faces.” Another explanation is that the plant itself has evolved. “Early on it wasn’t very good at self-pollinating and now it is.” Cappuccino and her students have also found that this species does better the denser it gets. “Patches do better than individuals. The plant is actually facilitating its own growth.”

There is also another possibility. At Agriculture Canada’s Herbarium, two small seedlings are carefully noted as having come from a single seed. The plant is also poly-embryonic. It is a phenomenon we don’t see normally find in nature with plants like milkweeds. Cappuccino says about half of the seeds produced are poly-embryonic.

Others have different explanations. Dr. Stephen Murphy of Waterloo University says that North America is one of the few industrialized areas that has “larger landscapes that are relatively undisturbed.” He feels that urban sprawl is what invasive species speaks to. Its about how we manage our land.” Alien invasive species are more likely to take over where habitats are disturbed and there are wide open areas for them to take over. Craig Huff, of the City of Ottawa’s Urban Forests believes the problem is due to our increasing concern over the use of herbicides in the last decade which is allowing invasives to get the upper hand. It is a hotly debatable issue. But in reality, it is the ‘evil” plant itself that overrides every explanation. In the States the weed has been labeled a Category 1 invasive, the worst you can get. The Nature Conservancy has nicknamed it “the purple loosestrife of dry lands.”

“You have to admire this plant,” says Cappuccino. If you were a plant and you wanted to take over the world what would you do? DSV produces massive amounts of seed that disperse in the wind., tolerating a wide variety of soil, light and temperature variation. It has tall twining stems that wrap around and smother shrubs and saplings. It is believed its roots produce chemicals that kill off neighbouring plants as it is known to kill fungi. It kills the larvae of any insect that might feed on it. It is unpalatable to most grazing animals. It gives some people rashes much like poison ivy. If its flowering top part is removed it rapidly produces another shoot with flowers. It self-pollinates. DSV has at least two toxins: Autofine and Tylophorine. Autofine has antifungal and antibacterial properties. Tylophorine is highly toxic to frogs but shows low toxicity towards mice. It is a powerful vesicant, i.e. it causes blisters. It has weak anti-tumour properties. Its anti-tumour properties are being looked at by scientists in Europe where they have found it kills mammary cancer cells. They ran into a snag however when they found it also kills healthy mammary cells.

“I figure its moving about 20 feet per year,” says Jane Appleby of the Dog-Strangling Vine Committee for ACRE (Action Chelsea for the Respect of the Environment). ACRE is recommending that residents prevent the plant from seeding where they are unable to dig it up by mowing and cutting. This year however, two new infestations were noticed several miles down highway 105 southward. One is on Peter’s Point Road, the other along the highway itself. The sideroads such as Gleneagle, Sumac, Station and Place Road are now host to the alien species. It has been seen along the railway corridor. The Municipality has made an effort to cut it in the ditches and is looking into disposal methods for plants that have been dug up.

Approximately five blocks away from the original infestation across the newly constructed extension to Highway 5 lies the Gatineau Park.

“The probability is very high that it will get into the Gatineau Park. I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t.” says Dr. Stephen Murphy of the University of Waterloo. He is studying mechanical methods of control such as the planting of invasives like the common burdock bush and Virigina Creeper. In eastern Ontario five parks are now hosting DSV. At least one of them is known to be using herbicides.

Mario Fournier, Manager of the Life Cycle of Urban Lands and Transportation from the NCC says “we take this threat very very seriously”. Just in the last several weeks, NCC personnel identified two sites along the Ottawa River shoreline on the Quebec side along the Voyageur corridor and the Deschenes Parking Lot. Fournier and his colleagues researched DSV on the internet and were alarmed. “We looked a the information from the States and southern Ontario. We said, ‘Whoah. Let’s do something before it’s too late because if we don’t react right now we’ll have a bigger problem in the future.” He adds, “Budgetwise we are very limited but we take DSV very seriously because it does spread very fast and it has a large impact on biodiversity.” The NCC has alerted park officials to be on the lookout for the vine. They will be handling the current relatively small invasions of DSV by cutting it using regular maintenance personnel.

Appleby has dealt with those in the area experiencing DSV invasions. For those with larger infestations she is seeing some lose hope. “I really want to stop this plant from spreading. I know that we can't eradicate it with pulling and mowing but if less seeds are produced we will have less seedlings next year. I have been trying my best to educate people in the neighbourhoods around me so that they don't encounter the despair that we have in the invaded area. Some people seem to think that I'm over-reacting and I'll walk by a few weeks later and they still have plants on their property that they could control with an hour or two of digging, but in other areas I am definitely getting the message across.” Appleby continues, “Nothing gives me more satisfaction than hearing that someone is educating their neighbours, digging it from communal areas, or that they are just able to identify it and control it on their own property. On the other hand I now find it difficult to walk in my area as instead of enjoying the wildflowers which I have done for many years I am looking through them, my eyes always searching for a new patch of dog strangling vine. We absolutely need to find a more permanent solution as the work being done this year will need to be repeated every year until a biological method of control is discovered.”

Lawlor of the Nature Conservancy has a new idea. In a kind of bizzaro version of eco-tourism, she’s thinking of hosting tours of Grenadier Island and the Henderson Peninsula in an effort to show those who need or should know just how bad DSV can get. Lawlor, Smith, Fournier and Appleby all say they are waiting for further direction from researchers.

But it is possibly misplaced optimism.

TESTIMONIALS: (Reprinted with Permission)

My name is Julie West and I live in Henderson New York. I want to try to give you an idea of what it's like as a property owner when swallow-wort invades. To me, it's like my land has cancer and I feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness as I watch it spread. Fifteen years ago, a good friend of mine found swallow-wort on his land It was an interesting plant, one he had never seen before. In just a few short years it became obvious how aggressive this plant was and how devastating it was to the native plants. We watched as swallow-wort marched across his property despite all his efforts to stop it. We live a few miles from Bob but it wasn't long before it began to show up on our property. When it first appears, it's very deceiving. Unless you know what you are looking for, you wouldn't even notice them. It's just a plant here, a plant there, no big deal. The next year each of those single plants becomes a little group, maybe 6-12 inches in diameter and there are lots more single plants around, and still it's no big deal. There continues to be a wonderful diverse mixture of plants. In the next couple of years those small groups have become small patches 6 to 8 feet in diameter, and you start to notice as you really look, that there are patches and small groups and single plants everywhere. Then you watch helplessly as the patches merge together until it is so thick it completely smothers everything. It twines together so you can hardly walk through it. Nothing else grows, not even grass. When it takes over an open field, there are no more wildflowers. No daisies, no milkweed, no dandelions, no Queen Anne's lace, not even chicory or thistles. It can climb 8 to 10 feet high. It will smother and kill juniper, honeysuckle and small trees. Swallow-wort is so aggressive here in Henderson that this took just a few short years. Swallow-wort has no natural enemies to control it's spread. The plants show no sign of damage from insects and there is no indication that deer or any other animals eat it. Swallow-wort can only be controlled when it is recognized early and it is still just a plant here and a plant there. The key is education so that people can recognize swallow-wort in it's early stages, and awareness about it's devastating effects so that it will be taken seriously. Hopefully we can control it's spread while we look for ways to control and eradicate it.

I manage a 62 acre Christmas tree farm and nursery in western New York,
outside Rochester. About 10 years ago swallowwort's presence was noted but not considered unusual or even identified. Within about 5 years it had
spread over much of the farm in the plantation and the woods, sun or shade
equally. Where it has established itself, it is the dominant species to the
virtual exclusion of everything else. For the first few years, I continued
to mow it without thinking of the consequences. I generally do a fall
mowing to clean up the plantation for Christmas time, and in the process
helped the swallowwort by mowing off the seed heads. Now I try to mow it
before seeds develop. I also have tried chemicals, with some success. I
have sprayed large areas with 2-4-D or Crossbow (2-4-D and Triclopyr) in
late May/early June when flowers are just developing. This arrests the
development of seed and eventually kills the plant (or at least some of the
plants; this is an incredibly resilient species), but requires a concerted
yearly effort. It also requires going back over the area about 2 weeks
after the initial spraying to catch ones missed. Round-up applications in
late June when plants are in flower has had some success also, but again we
are talking at least annual applications and often bi-annual sprayings. If
you can't get the spraying done while plants are in bloom for whatever
reason, then I recommend at least cutting the flower heads off, which will
give you an extended period in which to spray, while the plants put out new
flower heads.
Since I first identified the plant I have seen it everywhere in western
New York, in all the parks and woodland, along the highways. It is firmly
established in the wild and will require significant efforts by all state
and local agencies and private individuals in order to control it.

Best of luck
Andrew Fowler
Holmes Hollow Farm

We are loaded with s-w on a 60 acre spread of undeveloped land on the shore of Henderson Bay, south of and joining Lake Ontario. It's part of an abandoned farm that we decided to keep 'Forever Wild' and that's just what has happened as far as the s-w is concerned. We have woodland, a previously cleared easement for a power line, a cove and 1800' of shore line. It was approximately one month ago we discovered s-w in the woodlands and dense growth in the easement, extending at least 0.6 mi.long. I walked the easement area with a brush-cutting operator this morning and we've (my wife and I) decided to take the plunge and have the easement cut now and in two weeks or so evaluate any resurgence and probably spray with Garlon-4. It almost looks like a lost cause because we have so much of the stuff but we have the philosophy of making this an experiment (though an expensive one!), and maybe establish some basis for a program for others in the same predicament. Wish us luck.
I.Stone, New York


Dog-strangling Vine (DSV) puts out a stem that climbs anywhere from six to eight feet. At the top, it curls around others of its kind in a massive tangle making each plant hardly distinguishable from another. Lower down, the stems have fallen over from the weight of it all. It is ironically a good metaphor for what funding, research and management of dog-strangling vine looks like in Canada. It is a vast impenetrable jurisdictional mess with those at the top heavy with bureaucratic paper war and process and those at the bottom struggling to stay upright. Nobody in any meaningful way wants the financial commitment that adopting the issue of DSV entails. In a crisis situation it is the citizens who are responding while their governments have meetings and discuss jurisdictional responsibilities, as they have for at least the last 12 years.

Decisions on how to handle DSV at the grassroots (pardon-the-pun) level for weed managers is simple. They either have the resources or they don’t. That is how the decision is made. That is how, for example, hundreds of acres of urban landscapes and corridors in Toronto have turned into wastelands. It is how two thousand acres of prime state land in Grenadier Island has too. It is why infestations of DSV are cropping up all over the place with lots of room to grow exponentially worse.

Who is going to be accountable and who is going to pay? At the end of the day that pretty much sums up all the questions. It no small thing. Eliminating invasives is not like eliminating regular weeds. It costs big bucks above and beyond most budgets for weed control. The NCC has to fund eradication of invasives above and beyond its normal operating budget. “In the last two years, “says Mario Fournier of the NCC, “we have spent between $30,000 and $40,000 erradicating Buckthorn [another invasive] at Remick Rapids.” Buckthorn is an alien invasive bush which is not nearly as invasive as DSV. They were successful in their efforts unlike most weed managers experience with DSV. With DSV, repeated interventions over at least five years are required. Even if a herbicide is used.

Environment Canada commissioned a report in 2002 from RNT Consulting in Picton, Ontario on the costs of invasive aliens. The report found that “Although the problem of alien species invading new territories has now become severe… we found no comprehensive, centrally available inventory in Canada which would list alien species already present, or keep note where alien species are found.” They found it “impossible to guess where to look for information” when an alien species is one that is not an agricultural or forest pest. The report concluded that the cumulative costs of 5.5 billion dollars for just the 9 species they studied and over 22 milllion in on-going costs were quite conservative given that the data collected did not cover all provinces and territories. “Only those species with the highest public profile have economic costs associated with them at this stage.”

Fournier of the NCC illustrates the problem succinctly. “In Toronto they had some bugs [Asian Long Horn Beetle] threatening trees and in that case the Canadian Food Inspection Agency had the money for intervention.” When invasives threaten industry or agriculture, money is usually found. When invasives threaten recreational areas or private property it is a different story altogether.

The work being done by the two researchers in Canada looking into the problem, Dr. Stephen Murphy of Waterloo University and Dr. Naomi Cappuccino are supported by grants from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Much of the work, particularly in Murphy’s case is done gratis. Murphy says “You really don’t have anybody who has a primary mandate to fund this sort of initiative [DSV management]. That’s tough. That’s what slows down research I think.”

Murphy goes on to say “I’m sure constitutionally there’ll probably be some arguments over whose jurisdiction this actually is.” This, if anything is an understatement.

Pity now the concerned person who finds a patch of DSV in their neighbourhood in Ottawa. If they were resourceful, they might want to look it up in Agriculture Canada’s extensive book “Weeds of Canada”. It wouldn’t be listed. A weed is something that threatens agriculture by the department’s definition. Who then do they call?

In Ottawa, the responsibility could lie with the NCC, the City of Ottawa, Private Property, Government Agencies, Public Works, Private corporations, Condominium Groups, Properties held in trust,… It all depends on where the weed is found and therefore whose budget it comes from. The Noxious Weed Act for example is a provincial matter with the Federal Government not bound by it. The NCC would handle this side of the path and City Parks the other. Nortel would handle their invasion privately on one side of the street while the Ministry of Transport might handle it over there. There are dividing lines jurisdictionally that are not unfortunately respected by DSV, which might be glaringly apparent if the trees weren’t in the way of the forest.

The City of Ottawa does not have a global budget to handle invasives. Craig Huff, Forester for the City of Ottawa explains that the City has cost-shared budgets for weed control with a number of groups including one called the Alta Vista Reforestation initiative and a similar one in Vanier which included elimination of invasives as part of its work. When $100 million was cut from the City’s budget (and a 3% tax increase was levied) the City bowed out of that commitment. “Our tree-planting initiatives were significantly curtailed.”

Pity now, the person charged with the responsibility of eliminating DSV. What are they going to do? Cut it? Pull it? Mow it? Burn it? Dig it? Spray it? With what? How much? Cover it with plastic? Cover it with mulch? For how long? What kind of mulch? When do they cut it? How often? Should they just “let it go”? How do they make that decision? The City of Toronto, Provincial Parks, Federal Parks, The NCC, The City of Ottawa, Chelsea… They are all handling the problem differently. Year after year, each separate jurisdiction is putting out money and year after year it is expected to continue and possibly grow worse. It all adds up to a lot of money.

Pity now, the researchers struggling to work on DSV. Who is going to fund them? In a publish or perish environment how can they find the time to continue this mostly gratis work for the common good? Especially when so many people are counting on them?

Dr. Stephen Murphy is trying to make sense out of the mayhem at a level that responds to real need. “I deal with [invasives] on an individual species basis because if you don’t deal with them on that scale all the other questions are moot….I’ve taken the initiative to contact people and ask if we’d like to get together in a loose network and the response have been great. We’re kind of doing it from the ground up. But this is only coming from me as an individual as opposed to somebody up in Ottawa or Toronto where I think it would be a better way of doing it.” Murphy is trying to find practical solutions for the problem of DSV including mechanical methods of control such as planting native species (the common burdock bush and Virginia Creeper) to see if they will compete with the DSV.

Murphy goes on to explain “The United States is very different. They actually have an office dedicated to invasive species. We need that in Canada and we need to connect it up with the US. Certainly I’ve talked to individuals who are keen to do it but you really need somebody from the government to be the authority there. You can’t really have individual researchers doing it. We don’t have time to do it. We really need somebody whose primary responsibility is Invasive Species Manager and certainly that can devolve down to research.”

“One of the problems is that it is not clear who has the mandate for this.” He goes down a list rapidly. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Agriculture Canada, Health Canada, Environment Canada and all the Provincial Ministries and municipal offices.

Murphy is peripherally aware of the Environment Canada initiative on Alien Invasive Species as a whole. Environment Canada has assumed a national co-ordinating role on the issue of invasive alien species and is tackling many of the issues he mentions. Murphy however astutely says, “I don’t see much of a strategic direction going in there especially with any sort of funding attached to it directly, as far as I can tell.”

The hope for DSV lies in the story of Purple Loosestrife. It was adopted by the group Ducks Unlimited. Well-funded researchers were able to identify an insect that feeds on the plant and import it to North America. This biological control method has meant that the problem of Purple Loosestrife is well on the way to complete control. It is a success story that has received little publicity. But it is, indeed a monumental success when one considers that a little bug in a marsh is doing all the work and it doesn’t need a salary, a chemical arsenal or a special budget to do so.

It is indeed hard to understand how a problem like DSV has gotten so out of control so fast in places like Toronto. It is indeed hard to understand how no comprehensive overall management scheme has addressed issues of how to contain it and who is responsible. On the Invasive Alien Species website of Environment Canada we find that Canada was instrumental in negotiating the “United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity” and was the first industrialized nation to ratify it.” That was in 1992. A permanent secretariat in Montreal with a staff of 40 people was established. That was in 1995. Since then they have developed a “blueprint for a proposed national plan”. That was in 2001. They’ve now “approved a discussion document as a basis for consultation”. That was in 2003. Their next step is to “begin to lay a foundation for a national plan” with four strategic goals: prevention, early detection, rapid response, eradication, containment and control. These strategic goals are up for approval in September 2004.

The plan is admirable in its scope and intent and certainly bureaucrats have worked hard to achieve what they have. It seems however like they might be having a bit of a problem in the “rapid response” part of the equation. That part of the plan has not yet been approved. The plan also seems to neglect to mention the words “funds will be allocated.” The Conservation Strategies Directorate on Biodiversity at Environment Canada is not a funding organization, explains Bob McLean, Director General. It exists to coordinate and work with other organizations at other levels, including the Department of Fisheries, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and others to help establish priorities, set strategies and also develop legislation. It requires a lot of planning, consultation and discussion. Its about consensus building, procedures, strategies, planning and policies. Its not about funding. That depends on political will.

All of these meetings and discussions translate down in the field to utter frustration and some hard decisions for those contending with DSV, including budget allocations, the controversial use of herbicides or decisions to simply “stand back and let it go.” With DSV, given it is not now considered a threat to agriculture or industry, the waiting for funds for research may be a long one compared to other alien invasive species. There are hundreds of invasive species in Canada. It is lower on the list of priorities. Or it might not be. Risk assessments have not been done on all invasive species at this point, explains McLean who was unaware of DSV.

Murphy’s vision of an administrative body “devolving down to research” as it is set up now is seemingly devolving down to the lowest levels of governments, already seriously cash-strapped, to come up with the money to control invasives as a stop-gap measure until research happens. And when they can’t come up with the money, the volunteers step in. There is no reason to believe Environment Canada’s Conservation Strategies Directorate will not devolve to this as long as funding for research is not part of its specific agenda. It is vaguely reminiscent of a situation in history. Nero himself fiddled while Rome burned. The political will is simply not there to meaningfully fund the issue.

Who is an individual citizen going to call? More than likely the most responsive groups are non-profit environmental groups. In Chelsea, ACRE (Action Chelsea for the Respect of the Environment) has taken up a coordinating role with the Municipality of Chelsea. In the States, the non-profit Nature Conservancy is helping with the large infestations there. In Toronto and Ottawa’s Fletcher Wildlife Gardens, volunteers are saving weed management from even more grief than they are already dealing with. What is clear from the whole mess is that individual citizens are walking in and doing what government should have been doing a long long time ago and almost always at the volunteer level. It is a form of grass-roots response that governments might learn a lot from.

Volunteers are the backbone of every single person spoken with concerning DSV. There was one exception. Mario Fournier of the NCC is able at this point to keep up with the small infestations of DSV using regular maintenance staff. When asked if the NCC would consider helping with the infestation in Chelsea he explains almost apologetically that it is not his jurisdiction. That’s the municipalities responsibility he explains. And of course private property owners or as some might call them,, taxpayers.

On the issue of who is going to fund research into DSV, Murphy of Waterloo says, “We’re fighting a battle. It does affect the common good so we have to wonder about priorities sometimes.”


Helen said...

A comment that definitely isn't spam: I've been conducting a campaign on our blog Toronto Gardens to educate gardeners about DSV -- which, as you note, is rampant in our city. It's very disheartening to read your article and see just how much of a problem it has become elsewhere in North America. Yet, it constantly surprises me how few people know about it (not for the lack of my trying). *Shivers*

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