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  • Writer's pictureljmarkson

Fig Ivy Doesn't Belong in a Habitat Yard!

(Or How Every Yard is an Opportunity to Restore Habitat)

When we moved to Atlanta 20 years ago, we thought the fig ivy growing on our 75 years old cottage style home was charming. It also covered a low retaining wall in our backyard. Now, I realize what a pernicious weed it is! Fig ivy (Ficus pumila) is a non-native and aggressively growing invasive vine native to East Asia. It has naturalized in Georgia where it is not on the invasive species list but still displaces native plants where it infests natural areas. Fig ivy is sold at big box stores and regular nurseries. DO NOT BUY IT! When a non-native plant is promoted as being easy care, low maintenance and adaptable to growing anywhere it’s an ecological red flag. In the ornamental plant world fig ivy is described as hardy, tough, versatile, fast growing, and able to withstand aggressive trimming – all qualities that tell you it will create a dense monoculture and climb over everything in its path.

This photo of our house from when we bought it is from the printed real estate flyer. The fig ivy is circled in red.

Around 75% of the United States (excluding Alaska) and 85% of land east of the Mississippi is privately owned,  One of the top reasons for the alarming bird and insect population decline in the last 50 years is habitat loss. This means we need to start viewing our own yards through the lens of habitat restoration - with every yard another opportunity to restore habitat.

The only sane ecological option is to view our yards as essential for restoring fragmented habitat. (This is a section of my front yard in the fall)

Removing invasives is the first step to restoring habitat. Functionally, fig ivy is an invasive in my yard - it's non-native, grows fast enough to outcompete and choke out native plants; has toxic qualities; isn't kept in check by native insects or animals; and its adventitious roots become thick and woody over time making them almost impossible to remove.

Like most ornamental plants that are intentionally added to yard, I didn't realize how invasive fig ivy was until I tried to remove it.

I’ve been battling to remove fig ivy since I started the process of rewilding my yard. Last year I was hopeful that an unusual extended deep freeze did it in, but the above ground ivy only died back and reemerged in spring.

I was excited after a deep freeze when the fig ivy died back. Unfortunately in the spring it grew back quickly from the extensive roots covering a large area near the fence.

I even offered to give my fig ivy away years ago to anyone who would come and dig it out - but of course there were no takers! Now, even if someone wanted it, I wouldn't give it away because I don’t want to be responsible for fig ivy growing anywhere else in Atlanta. I finally acknowledged the reality of the situation and hired someone younger and stronger than me to remove the fig ivy roots that had taken over an area along my back fence and a retaining wall that wraps around a half my backyard. It took him two days!

In Atlanta there are a growing number of ecologically aware invasive removal services in including Woods Keeper, EcoLogic, and ReForest Atl. The young man doing the hard work of removing the fig ivy for me used a garden pick the first day with some success, but preferred the root slayer brand shovel and trowel that I went out and bought for him to test out the second day. I guess it lives up to its name.

These are some of the tools that worked well removing the fig ivy roots. I would imagine they would be great for other invasives.

Now that my yard is free from the clutches of fig ivy, I'm excited to see what shade tolerant native groundcovers I can add that will thrive in the rich humus soil from leaves releasing nutrients for years in this area. A handful of the many natives already growing nearby include yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima), wild ginger (Hexalis arifolia), Pachysandra or Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), little sweet betsy (Trillium cuneatum), wild violets (Viola sororia), and Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).

I hope to extend the patches of native plants where the fig ivy was removed (Clockwise from top left: yellowroot, native Allegheny spurge, little sweet betsy trillium, wild violets, and Christmas fern.)

Along the back fence, I can let more habitat friendly native vines roam, including Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). This aggressive native still has some detractors, but is worth giving another look because it hosts more than a dozen moth and butterfly caterpillars including a few sphinx moths, has berries for birds, and brilliant fall color (for our admiration!) Coexisting with nature doesn't exclude enjoying the benefits of plants with admirable ornamental qualities!

Virginia creeper is an obvious native replacement for fig ivy. It's a fantastic habitat plant!

Note: There are no affiliate links in this blog. Please click the highlighted text throughout the post for links to references, details, explanations, worthy organizations or businesses, or examples that I think might be helpful.




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