Last week,when traveling south through New England, we saw multiflora roses blooming everywhere: spilling down banks, climbing trees, and filling the air with their scent. It’s not easy to hate these invasives; their delicate white blossoms are attractive and their sprays of red hips make beautiful autumn arrangements and wreaths. But the berries are also tempting food for birds, whose droppings spread them far and wide, and the roses can also reproduce by rooting at the tip of their arching stems when they touch the ground. Because the plant tolerates both moist and relatively dry conditions, they’re found in old fields, along fence rows, power lines, roadsides, forest edges and even the understory of hardwood forests.

The best method of controlling multiflora roses would be to not plant them in the first place, but that ship, alas, has sailed. Multifloras, native to eastern Asia, were brought to North America in the late nineteenth century originally for use in horticultural plantings. Since then they’ve been planted for wildlife food and cover, erosion control, and as a living fence to border properties or to pen livestock, which is deterred by the thorny thickets — all of this with the perhaps mistaken blessing of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and state conservation departments. As a result, the roses naturalized throughout much of the United States, including Maine.







Should you find multifloras growing on your property, remove them as soon as possible. Repeated mowing, at least six cuts per year near the ground for two or more years, can usually eliminate light infestations, but if a thicket has formed it may be necessary to use some heavy equipment to get rid of it.

A number of years ago I wrote about the efforts of an Americorps team that was helping to clear invasives from the woods around Blueberry Cove Camp in Tenants Harbor. The multifloras, as well as barberries — another invasive that was first used as an ornamental and has spread with the help of berry-gobbling birds — had formed such thickets that a bulldozer was needed to pull the rootstock, and the piles of vegetation were 15 feet high.

While both these thorny plants crowd out natives, a multi-year study taking place in Connecticut found the larger the number of Japanese barberry plant in an area, the higher the incidence of Lyme disease–carrying ticks. White-tailed deer do not browse Japanese barberry, helping it to outcompete native shrubs. When there are dense stands of Japanese barberry, habitat is favorable for all life stages of blacklegged ticks. As ticks mature, they require host mammals of increasing size, and larval blacklegged ticks feed primarily on small host mammals like white-footed mice. Several characteristics of Japanese barberry, including early leaf-out, dense thorns and an abundance of fruit, create an ideal habitat for mice, one that is free from predators and has abundant food. To add to the problem, mature Japanese barberry is the perfect height for adult ticks to attach themselves to deer as they pass by. So the conclusion seems obvious: eliminating Japanese barberry will decrease the number of blacklegged ticks, which in turn will significantly reduce the risk of Lyme disease.

I still see newly planted landscapes that feature barberry plants. Why not? They’re shade-tolerant, drought-tolerant, low-maintenance and deer-resistant. And, like those multiflora roses, they’re pretty, with leaf colors that range from green to bluish-green to dark red and purple. The bright red berries persist into late winter, and in autumn the foliage varies in shades from yellow to crimson. But if you’d like to put in an alternative shrub that won’t invade the forests, why not choose a variety that thrives in the same site conditions, like a highbush blueberry, which will feed your family instead of the birds, or Clethra alnifolia, a shrub that has fragrant, white or pink terminal flower spikes in late summer. The blooms look like bottle brushes and attract butterflies and bees, and the leaves turn yellow in autumn.