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Wednesday - September 26, 2007

From: Cypress, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Groundcovers
Title: Removal of bramble under live oaks and replacing with groundcover
Answered by: Barbara Medford and Joe Marcus


We have several large live oaks on the front of our 12 acre property in Hockley, Texas. Under and around each oak is an extensive amount of bramble which we would like to remove so that we can enjoy the trees without the thorns. Is there a safe way to remove the bramble without harming the shallow roots of the trees, and are there any grasses or groundcovers that we could plant once the bramble is removed?


When we searched our Native Plant Database for "bramble", we got only one reference, Rubus lasiococcus (roughfruit berry) and it only occurs naturally in the Pacific Northwest. However, it is highly possible that what you have is Southern dewberry, Rubus trivialis. This USDA website not only has a picture, but a map showing that it grows all over the United States. Again, this is a plant native to North America, but just because it's a native doesn't mean it's an okay plant. Some sites listed this plant as invasive, as I'm sure you do, and it's certainly okay to get rid of it. The Rubus is a member of the Rosaceae, or rose, family, thus the stickers.

Having lived for a number of years on a property with lots of oaks, we might suggest another possibility. The property had been unused farmland before we moved into it, and all the oaks had a stickery vine growing around them that we were told were "briers". One that looks very like what we had is Smilax bona-nox (saw greenbrier). We were also told that the tuber in the root system was used to make brier pipes, but that turns out to be folklore. Only the European briers have a tuber root sufficiently hard to carve pipes. Oh, well, it would have been nice to think those pesky things had some sort of use.

Now, having spent a good deal of your time telling you what you might have growing under your oak trees, here's the bad news. The solution for both is the same, or nearly so. Leather gloves, long-sleeved shirts, a strong determination and persistence are the ingredients. It is really not practical nor recommended to try herbicides, as the plants are too closely involved with other desirable plants. Theoretically, if you just cut the plant off at the ground, without leaves for nutrition it will die. Theoretically. In actuality, grubbing out the roots, pulling out as much as you can, and continuing to do so is the best (if not the easiest) way. Here is a link to a previous Mr. Smarty Plants answer on the question of removing brier.

The big problem with eradication of either the brier or the dewberry is that your friends, the birds, will continue to plant them afresh for you. They eat the berries, pass them through their digestive systems, and deposit them in your garden. Having passed through a bird digestive system, they are ready for anything, and are ready to pop back up once they hit the ground. Again, persistence is necessary. If you pull it out when you see the first leaf or two, it's a lot easier to get out than when it's mature.

Now, one more warning (just what you needed). Toxicodendron radicans (eastern poison ivy) loves the same environment as the dewberry and the brier, shade, protection, similar plants for camoflage, trees to climb, etc. And, it is also distributed by the helpful birds, so you never really get rid of it. So, examine the plants you are getting ready to attack very carefully, and prepare to pull out the poison ivy, if you find it, with rubber gloves that can be washed free of the oils, and paper towels or newspaper to actually pick it up. It can deposit oils on tree bark, leather gloves and clothes and come back to torment you later. Deposit the paper-wrapped vine in a trash bag and don't let anyone reach in there barehanded to push the rubbish down.

Now, finally, having gotten rid (hopefully) of all the nuisance vines, whatever they are, we would suggest Chasmanthium latifolium (Inland sea oats) as a shade-tolerant replacement. They are graceful, with beautiful seed clusters, and stay visible and attractive virtually year round. They won't suppress the vines you are trying to get rid of, sorry, but at least you can tell the difference and more easily detect and destroy the interlopers.


Toxicodendron radicans

Chasmanthium latifolium



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