English Ivy: Invasive, deadly and possibly in your area

English Ivy: Invasive, deadly and possibly in your area

Whatcom Million Trees Project, a Bellingham-based nonprofit targeting reforestation and tree-related resiliency projects in the region, has a new target: invasive English ivy.

The once-popular perennial has made its way into yards, greenways, parks and forests across the county, killing and destroying hundreds of trees in its path.

As the vines attach to the bark, plant roots grow deeper along the trees, competing for water and nutrients. Ivy that reaches the tree canopy can kill a mature tree within a few years, blocking sunlight and weakening limbs.

Once this happens, overgrown trees — potential carbon storage plants — become brittle and prone to breaking or falling, damaging land and homes, and leaving behind dead snags and decaying timber.

“Most people in our community don’t realize that English ivy kills almost every tree it climbs,” said Michael Ferrer, executive director of the Whatcom Million Tree Project.

In Bellingham, the Million Tree Project has identified more than 1,000 trees in public spaces such as parks and greenways. More trees with climbing ivy are located outside city limits and on private property, Ferrer said.

“We’ve identified the 1,000 people, and that’s only within the city of Bellingham, and that’s just in public spaces, parks, greenways — nothing else,” Ferrer said last week. “On private property, there are many, many more. We haven’t been able to identify them yet.”

The group identified hundreds of ivy-covered trees in pockets throughout Bellingham, with clusters along the waterfront, near Chuckanut Drive, and in most wooded areas.

This identification project helped the group plan volunteer removal parties, and about eight months ago, volunteers removed more than 600 ivy trees, Ferrer said.

“We were getting rid of that,” Ferrer said. “We are making progress, but we have more work to do.”

However, cutting it down is complicated, Ferrer said, as local plant nurseries continue to sell the plant — a feat Ferrer described as “remarkable,” considering how much damage it can cause to the local ecosystem.

The group is working with local nurseries, asking them to phase out sales of English ivy in favor of other, less invasive plants. As a last option, Ferrer said the group could petition the state Department of Agriculture to include English ivy on its list of plants prohibited in nurseries, which includes noxious weeds and “invasive exotic plants.”

The state already considers English ivy a noxious weed, but has not yet put it on the prohibited sale list. Separate ivy eradication programs have already been underway in some places, such as Seahome Hill Arboretum in Bellingham, where college students often use yard tools to fight the pesky vine.

Although the group’s mission is to plant or save more than a million trees in the county, Ferrer said the group removes invasive species to help support a healthy tree canopy during the non-planting season.

“Everyone thinks of us as tree farmers, but that’s just a small part of what we do,” Ferrer said. “We also do tree advocacy and a lot of other aspects. The tree planting season is actually from late fall to early spring, so the rest of the year, we have work teams doing ivy work.

Ferrer said healthy trees are essential to combat the ongoing climate crisis because of their ability to sequester carbon.

“It’s no small feat what trees can do for the carbon crisis,” Ferrer said. “Trees are not the only solution…but the tree can play a role.”

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