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Black Swallow-wort in Massachusetts – Join the Fight


Black Swallow-Wort on a Cambridge Chain Link Fence

Black Swallow-Wort on a Cambridge Chain Link Fence

It’s prime time in the war against Black Swallow-wort in Massachusetts – Swallowwort is flourishing in Massachusetts and there are large stands around Cambridge, Watertown, Medford and Somerville.

Black Swallow-wort is a very invasive plant that can take over a landscape and spread far if seeds are dispersed. Not only will it crowd out other plants but it has been shown to have a negative impact on songbird populations and on monarch butterflies.

I have a feeling that Black Swallow-wort thrives with a lot of rain because there’s a bumper crop out there.  The pods seem to have come out early – I found vines with maturing pods in June. 

Around the city it often seems that homeowners think that Swallowwort is an attractive vine.  In Cambridge and Somerville you often find the vines climbing over chain link fences – providing a wall of greenery that hides the chain link.  When we were on our weekly tour I spotted a new real estate listing in Watertown where a support had been carefully placed in the garden for a Swallow-wort vine.

You do NOT want to encourage Black Swallow-wort in your garden – and instead should mount a full scale campaign to eradicate it.

While it is an ongoing struggle to kill Black Swallow-wort – best done with liberal applications of Round-up – and lots of digging – now is the time to collect pods.

The first year I discovered swallow-wort in my yard I made the mistake of breaking off  the vines and leaving the pods. Unfortunately even when the vine is dead the pods will eventually open and disperse their fluff-borne seeds

Pounds of Swallow-Wort Pods

Pounds of Swallow-Wort Pods

Pods must be removed and burned or carefully bagged and disposed of in a landfill.

I have taken to carrying bags with me in order to collect pods.  This morning in Watertown Square I happened to pass a hedge with Swallow-wort vines growing in it.  By the time I was done I had collected over 2.5 POUNDS of pods!!

What Does Swallow-Wort Look Like?

  • Swallow-wort’s shiny green leaves come in pairs
  • The vine grows fast and will twine around fences and tree and bush branches
  • The pods are slim, smooth and green
  • When it flowers the vine has small, purple, star-shaped blossoms

Please join the fight!!  If you see swallow-wort pods – pluck them!  Swallow-wort will soon blanket Massachusetts if we don’t stem its spread.

Here are some more photographs of Black Swallow-wort found in Cambridge and Watertown:


Categories: Living Here

  1. Lyn Lombard

    How much of Massachusetts is affected by this weed? Is anything being done to stop its spread?

  2. Elizabeth Bolton

    Hi Lyn ~ I don’t know if black swallowwort is everywhere in Massachusetts. I’ve seen references to it out in Lincoln and Concord and I see it all the time in Arlington, Belmont, Cambridge, Medford, Somerville and Watertown. Once you know what it looks like you’ll start noticing it.

    Some efforts are being made for sure. But it’s an ongoing battle. For instance, I know that Lesley College students leafletted in the Agassiz neighborhood near the campus sometime in the past and yet I see black swallow-wort all the time in the neighborhood.

    I think that county or state departments have people who specialize in invasive plants and I’m sure this is on their radar. In the meantime I’m trying to spread the word to stop the spread! Come spring I’ll put gloves and bags in my car – if I see it I have to pick it. The gloves are key because at some point in its lifecycle I become somewhat allergic to it.

    Thanks for your interest. Spread the word!


  3. Laurel Ricciarelli

    Thank god for your article.

    This plant is starting to pop up all over my yard. When I bought my house, one side of it had a chain link fence and during my first summer, I noticed the fence became covered in this vine. I thought “great”, I have this wonderful vine to cover that ugly fence. Four summers later, this is one seriously invasive vine and now I am finding it in every plant bed and around my home’s foundation – not good. I am now on a mission to destroy all of it. If you have any good suggestions, I’d love to hear it. In the meantime I’ll use Roundup and pull all of the pods. I will also spread the word about this awful plant.

  4. Laurel Ricciarelli

    By the way, I live in Peabody Massachusetts and I see this vine around the neighborhood.

  5. Alasdair

    I had this damn thing in my backyard in Waltham some years ago. Seemed nothing else grew back there but these vines. I believe these are mildly poisonous if the stems or leaves are broken, so your reader who mentioned gloves has the right idea. It’s not like poison ivy, but it is an irritant for many people and if you’re undergoing a wholesale eradication you’re going to have to take a bath afterward if you don’t cover up properly. Best of luck.

  6. Elizabeth Bolton

    Thanks Alasdair. It took me a while to discover that it becomes irritating to the skin about the middle of the season. I can’t resist picking and pulling it whenever (and wherever!) I see it. It does start to cause a rash once it’s fairly well along in its growth. I try to remember to keep gloves or newspaper bags in the glove compartment for this reason.

  7. Linda Julien

    I have quite a bit of this evil stuff in my yard in Medford, and it’s recently seeded itself into the lawn. This year I’m trying a newly available iron-based broadleaf weedkiller — Iron HEDTA, which I got under the brand name of Iron-X (though I understand you can find it under other brand names, too). It’s a bit early to say for sure how well it’s going to work, but the swallow wort that I liberally sprayed yesterday is indeed looking sick. I’m hopeful, perhaps mostly because there’s no way I could manage to dig up all of those plants by hand to get to the root crown.

    I’m curious if anyone else has tried Iron HEDTA on the stuff, and with what results. The stuff isn’t cheap, but if it will get rid of the swallow wort, I’ll buy as much as I need.

  8. cheryl

    This vine is a very invasive vine, and it is sometimes mistaken for a beautiful vine that travels along wire fences. Please don’t let the beauty fool you, for it will take over your whole entire garden. This plant will suck the life out of your plants. I live in Dorchester, MA and I don’t believe that many people realize what this plant is capable of. This is also a plant to becareful of because, it will even cause skin problems such as poison ivy does when the plants is distrubed.

    With education of this plant, prehaps we can get rid of it.

  9. Rejean Blanchette

    I live in Deerfield, NH and it’s invading our garden. I also think that it’s irritant to your skin, I need to shower right away after pulling it out.

  10. Lynn Tillson

    I live in Lynn MA. I have a lot of morning glory vines in my back yard, and thought that it was that growing in a corner that I rarely have reason to go into. Turns out it’s black swallowwort. I poured a 96 ounce bottle of bleach on it, and it didn’t blink an eye. 4 days later I gave it a healthy dose of ammonia, no luck. 4 days later I used a 64 ounce bottle of pine cleaner, still no luck. All applications were on both the leaves and a liberal amount on the ground around the bottom of the plant. Yes, I most definitely picked the pods. I didn’t, however, get all of them, because a couple of days later I found fuzzy seeds floating around my yard. I’ve also found a vine growing on my elderly neighbors fence with pods galore. I’m picking, and looking for something to kill the roots!

  11. David Bass

    I hate this stuff.

  12. Elizabeth Bolton

    Me too! And from the looks of it so far it’s shaping up to be a banner year.

  13. Kirk M

    Well after throwing all that stuff into the soil you can forget about growing anything in that spot. Ammonia and pine cleaner? I hope you dont have kids or pets because you could poison them. You could have used boiling water or a bleach mixture or vinegar and water mixture. There are plenty of alternatives. How about digging it up if there isnt much of it? I have tons of it in my yard in Malden and have started digging it up. It might take a few years and it might pretty much be keeping it at bay. I have seen one comment on a site about Iron-X working for one person on it. Its also EPA approved for use and its also biodegradable. So expensive though. Enough for 3 and a half cups is over $40 with shipping!

  14. Kirk M

    I also wanted to say thanks Elizabeth for bringing attention to this plague plant in the Boston area.

  15. Carol

    I have been trying to get this stuff off my chain link fence, it is on my neighbors side and, of course, twisting around the links.

    For two years it was basically under control but now my neighbor is 90 and she can not pull it out anymore…

    I started pulling it out again but now I am getting tiny fluid filled blisters on my hands. If I am amoung the milkweed and this stuff I get the blisters on my arms.

    I did finally prove it is this stuff because today I pulled JUST this stuff off the fence and within a half hour I had two blisters on my finger…

    Has anyone else had this happen????

  16. Liz

    Hi Carol – At this time of year I do get an allergic reaction to swallowwort – though with me it’s usually a matter of days before it appears – maybe people’s sensitivity varies.

    Earlier in the season it doesn’t affect me however. At this point, with the mature plants, I try to keep a few newspaper plastic bags in the glove compartment or scissors or clippers to clip the vines.


  17. Jo

    Thank you for this!! I have been calling it “evil ivy” for 5 years, since I moved to Malden, and have an annual, all summer battle with the stuff. If you keep on top of it and pull out the roots it gradually subsides but you must remain vigilant!! I am so glad to know what it is, and to see others hate it too and are trying to readicate it. It nearly killed a rhododendrun, 2 rose bushes and 2 pine trees in my front yard before I figured out what was happening… they were being choked to death!!

  18. Diane

    It’s all over Lynnfield and Wakefield, too. Thanks for the tips on helping to eradicate it.

  19. Debbie

    I see a lot of it all g fences and more in Quincy, too. There was a small amount in my yard 5 years ago and now it’s a big problem. Has anyone actually had success with this using boiling water or vinegar?

  20. Linda

    Hull is inundated with Black Swallow-wort. In order I try to pull the vine, cut the top off when I cannot reach the root, and bag the pods. At one point I had a 5# bag of pods early in the season just on my little hilltop. Then under the bushes in my yard, I discovered a secret stash and pulled out about 2# of pods and I’m not done! There are so many spots I cannot reach or are on private property that I cannot keep up. My fingers are raw and my dog is now accustomed to waiting around ; ) while I pull away. There has to be an easier way???
    I use boiling water and vinegar on my walkway to avoid poison runoff but not on the vines. Any luck??

  21. Linda

    Carol – I have been pulling vines and pods as my summer “project” and just last week my thumbs and index fingers are ruined. There was not a rash with blisters but it looks like I superglued my fingers, it itches sometimes, and there are big splits in the skin. They look deep because there is some swelling. Spray bandage hurts like He**. I’ve been washing, using hydrogen peroxide and Gold Bond cream. It’s a slow go and it’s healing really slowly. I think it’s from the fluid when I rip the pods off (?)
    Between this and the thorns of the beach roses …..

  22. Linda

    One website said to burn the pods which I cannot do. So I microwaved the first small bag. Now there are just too many to keep doing that. So I make sure they are bagged, tied closed, and put in the trash – not the yard waste.

  23. adarc

    I’ve lived in 6 different towns in MA and all but one had a serious swallowwort problem. I’m in Sturbridge now, and it is overrun. My property backs up to nature preserve, and it is constant battle to keep this plant out of my 1.5 acres. It is the worst weed I’ve ever dealt with. Worse than mutiflora rose, or japanese barberry, and nearly as bad as virginia creeper (which I am allergic to). This stuff is pulling down a 30 foot tree in my back yard. It spread by root, rhizome and seed, so if you want it gone, you have to dig for it. Wish me luck.

  24. Diann M

    I live in Plaistow, NH. They are very difficult to get rid of. I tried vinegar too and it doesn’t touch it at all. You have to dig it up. Glad I now know you can be allergic to it. So far so good. It is going to be a summer long project.

  25. Eva

    This stuff is in Newton. I was aware of it in our neighbor’s yard about three – four years ago, on a chain link fence. Our neighbor never tended to the vines on her fence. Then it migrated to our yard and fence. I’ve been plucking the pods on ours since I thought they looked like a mess on the neighbor’s fence and didn’t want it to spread as it had on hers. It wasn’t enough – we now have it growing near our hedges on our lawn side. Argh! Another neighbor (next to the original neighbor) has it all over her fence now too. I’ve been plucking those off for her because I don’t think she’s aware of it at all. Trying to get to the pods before they brown and split open, releasing the seeds. As with other writers, bags are required and I tie and toss them into the trash and not in the compost. My pups have also learned to stand for awhile as I pluck and pick at the plants. It’s really a terrible plant. I also have to contend with woodland squib (sp) as well – another very invasive plant/flower. Thanks for letting me know about the rashes and other skin problems due to black swallowwort. Yesterday my hand became all cracked, dry and bloody in the areas where my skin touches the pods while picking. I had wondered if there was a correlation between the plucking and my sudden bloody digits or if I was getting winter skin. But it’s too early for the winter skin seeing as it’s only Sept. and in the 70s and 80s +. I wish there was a way to warn homeowners more publically about this crappy foliage.

  26. Daphne

    I hate this weed!. I pull it, dig it up and still it comes back with a vengeance. Now my skin is stinging and burning a few days after dealing with it. Anyone have a topical medicinal treatment that soothes this sting? My poison ivy cures seem not to work on it.

  27. Jen

    Hi. Thanks for this warning about Black Swallowwort. We are actively digging it out from one of our Somerville Community gardens as well.

    However, under NO circumstances should anyone use Round-Up to eradicate this or any other weed. Round-Up is extremely polluting. It accumulates in soil, ground water and storm run-off. It is so persistent that traces of it have been found in processed foods in supermarkets. It will kill all plants that are not GMO’d to resist it (it was originally formulated for agricultural use on GMO’d crops). Round-Up should never be used in any family garden.

    Invasive weeds should instead be removed manually, preferably before they go to seed.

  28. Sheila

    Since I work in Cambridge, I think I might have treked it to my home in Dorchester. I am starting early this year to try to eridicate them. I’m digging up new growth and applying RoundUp to the ones that can’t be dug up..like in asphalt & cement walkways. I noticed that 6 more houses are hosting this terrible plant.

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