Taming Your Cape Cod Jungle

Taming Your Cape Cod Jungle

It happens in every landscape on Cape Cod. Birds sit in shrubs and trees after eating fruits from other plants, continually depositing the seeds in your yard. The sea breeze does its part to spread the finer seeds and before you know it there are all sorts of plants growing in your gardens that you may or may not want. This post talks about what happens, which plants to look for, and how to deal with the constantly encroaching jungle.

Unwanted plants are constantly springing up around our trees and shrubs, and unless the homeowner or landscaper is always looking out of them, they grow quickly before we’re even aware that they’ve arrived. Some people move into a newly purchased home and don’t realize that many of the plants in their landscape are invasive species. Along with these persistent plants are some native shrubs, trees and vines that are also aggressive. When all of these are left unchecked, the landscaping becomes overrun and the desirable plants hidden.

Not only do the bird-and-breeze deposited plants hide and smother your shrubs, trees and perennials, but they aren’t content to stop at the outer perimeter of your property. Every year they creep a bit farther into your flowerbeds and lawns, ultimately making your property seem a great deal smaller than it really is.

Here are a few to look out for. You can use Google Image to compare these names to the plants you see in your yards and gardens, and we’ve pictured a few of them below. (Note that this isn’t a complete list of invasive plants on the Cape…it’s just a list of the most common varieties that sneak into yards and gardens.) We’ve also separated this list of plants into native and non-native. Native plants aren’t invasive, but they can either be aggressive or too numerous; just because they are indigenous to the region doesn’t mean that you have to let every one of them stay.

Non-Native “Cape Cod Jungle Plants” include: Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus); Japanese honeysuckle and other bush honeysuckles (Lonicera japonica and other species); Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata); Porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata); Burning bush (Euonymus alatus); Wild rose (Rosa multiflora). All of these have little redeeming value and should be removed when they appear.

Native “Cape Cod Jungle Plants” include: Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans); Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia); Sumac, smooth and staghorn (Rhus glabra, and Rhus typhina); Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana); and Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). These plants are more desirable for wildlife support. A number of birds, for example, depend on the wild chokecherry and red cedar fruit, so if there is space in your landscape you could let some of these grow to maturity.

Privet and honeysuckle foliage look very similar, but the fruit placement is different. #1 Privet forms clusters of berries at the end of the branches, and this fruit changes from green to dark blue. #2 Honeysuckle has red berries that appear along the entire stems earlier in the summer. #3 is a young, native chokecherry tree.
#1 is smooth sumac. This is not poison sumac, which is unusual on Cape Cod. Smooth and staghorn sumac are valuable native plants but they may be overly aggressive for small properties. #2 is the bittersweet vine. This vine wraps around trunks and can smother entire shrubs. When you pull it up you’ll see the roots are orange, a good way to confirm you’re pulling young bittersweet seedlings. #3 Wild rose. The thorny canes of this rose go high into trees. Yes, the flowers are fragrant for about a week in early summer. But they quickly form a thicket, and become what area firefighters call “ladder plants” that can carry flames from the floor of a woodland up into the canopy of trees.
#1 Poison ivy. Glossy green leaves in groups of three. #2 Bittersweet. #3 Goldenrod (Solidago spp) which is a lovely perennial and good in flower gardens, but when nature plants it in places where you don’t want it growing, it should be moved elsewhere. Goldenrod does not cause hay fever, btw. #4 Virginia creeper. This is poison ivy’s best friend and they often grow together. Virginia creeper is also a nice native plant with great fall color, but since it desires to take over the world you’ll need to watch for unwanted seedlings.

So how can you tame the jungle?

  1. Learn to recognize this plants when they are small. It’s far easier to dig out young ones with a shovel than it is to remove mature plants from your shrubs and trees.
  2. If you see large plants, cut them off at ground level. If the vines are too large to pull off of trees or other plants, let them die back by themselves. They will eventually fall from where they’ve grown.
  3. Mulch around your shrubs and trees with an inch or two covering every year. More isn’t better, because many of these seeds will germinate on top of a pile of thick mulch. It is far better to spread a thinner layer of mulch annually than a thick layer every few years. Most weed seeds germinate with moisture and sunlight, so covering them prevents the light from triggering germination.
  4. If the jungle has overgrown areas of your property, you might need professional assistance to cut it out and haul it away. Once the problem plants are gone, be on the lookout for shoots and seedlings that are trying to make a comeback from remaining roots or seeds in the soil.
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