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English Ivy Pretty, But Deadly

Popular weed can kill healthy trees.

It clings closely to trees, coiling itself around their trunks like a snake strangling its prey. It will grow higher and higher, climbing up the tree, weaving around the branches until the tree is completely shrouded in a thick veil of English ivy, a plant popular with homeowners and landscape architects but considered a nuisance by county arborists. Moisture gets trapped between the ivy and the bark, and leads to decay. Sometimes, arborists can’t see that a tree is struggling with other problems because those problems are hidden by the ivy. Eventually, it can kill an otherwise healthy tree.

But it’s pretty and that’s the problem.

“It’s very popular in the landscaping industry and has been for years and years and years,” said Keith Cline, an urban forester with Fairfax County.

“It’s so prolific, it’s hard to keep it under control,” he said.

It’s become a problem up and down the East Coast. Western states are trying to keep it out as much as possible.

But county officials in Virginia can’t ban the plant, they can only discourage homeowners and landscape architects from planting it. Once it’s been planted it’s not easily uprooted without pulling out a significant amount of soil with it, which can contribute to erosion.

“It very easily spreads from the original planting area,” said state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31). “It has infested our parks and woods. It kills trees.”

ENGLISH IVY’S BECOME such a problem that Whipple decided to do something about it. Prompted by the Arlington County Board, she tried unsuccessfully to have the General Assembly add it to the state’s list of noxious weeds that are regulated by the state Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Whipple struck that bill when it became clear it was not going to get out of the Senate on Agriculture.

“They can halt the sale of English ivy,” she said. “People felt that was too draconian and I quickly agreed that we could try to do it on a locality basis.”

The second effort led by Whipple would have placed English ivy on the list of invasive plant species which localities are allowed to regulate. This would have allowed Fairfax or Arlington counties to regulate its sale without affecting the rest of the state. Supporters of the bill drove down to Richmond from Arlington with English ivy roots to show legislators just how much damage it can cause. But they did not convince the Senate Committee on Local Government.

Whipple said she would not reintroduce the bill next year.

“It met with so little success,” she said.

She said the bills failed because of opposition from the nursery industry, a part of the state’s agribusiness council, which she called “a potent business group.” The Farm Bureau also testified against the bill.

As a result, Cline and other urban foresters will continue doing what they’ve been doing: advising against planting English ivy with no authority to prohibit it.

“At times we do make recommendations that it be removed from trees,” he said.