There's a predator living in Helene Hvizda's backyard.
The spiny creature slithers between blades of grass, swirling around living beings and tightening its grip, essentially choking the life out of them.
No, it's not a monster from a horror movie.
It's an invasive plant called the Mile-a-Minute vine that hails from faraway countries like India, Eastern Asia, China and islands from Japan to the Philippines, and it grows so rapidly that it overtakes most other plants in the Hazleton woman's yard.
"I've been fighting this for two years," she said.
Hvizda and others flocked to the Luzerne County West Annex building in Forty Fort on Aug. 8 to listen to Penn State Master Gardener Roberta Troy talk about how to identify and combat these alien predators in one's own yard.
An invasive plant is one that was accidentally, or purposely, brought from another country and, because of the lack of natural predators such as insects and small animals that are in the plant's new habitat, are sometimes a force to be reckoned with.
Without birds and bugs to keep growth rates in check, invasive plants grow rapidly and spread aggressively throughout their new homes, which can cause harm to native plants that are fighting for the same ecosystems.
According to the United States National Arboretum website, the U.S. government spends about $100 million yearly to fight invasive plants in wetlands alone.
The aggressive plants can overtake entire ecosystems, leaving the land undiversified and barren food-wise for native birds, bugs and small animals.
As Troy, of Franklin Township, stated during the presentation, the two kinds of plants often have to fight to the death.
"Some people ask, ‘Why should I care?'" said Troy. "I am a hiker. I am a gardener. I am a bird-watcher. Invasive plants grow over trails and make them hard to navigate. They invade our garden They replace native vegetation needed for food and shelter for birds and small animals."
Troy covered some common invasive plants found in the area and what native species look similar to each other and can be planted to replace its evil doppelganger.
She said many landscapers in the area may be unknowingly selling invasive plants. The commonly called Butterfly Bush, also an invasive species, can be considered a backyard staple to attract butterflies, if kept in confining conditions.
"I have a Butterfly Bush, but I planted it in a raised bed," said Troy. "That way it can't spread. Also, they say the nutrition (of the Butterfly Bush) for butterflies is like eating a bag of potato chips."
If you do purchase a Butterfly Bush and plant it in an open area of your backyard hoping for gobs of the winged creatures to flutter at the spot, be warned – it will spread and it might be difficult to control.
Birds and bugs knock around the seeds and – oops! – you've got more plants than you wanted in the twitch of a butterfly wing.
But Troy said there are ways to keep invasive plants from completely taking over.
Mechanical (rolling up your sleeves and pulling), chemical (herbicides) and biological controls (bringing in the plants' natural predators) are all ways to control their growth, but each can come with a cost, too.
Mechanical measures may not always work. Herbicides can poison other plants and animals in the garden. And biological controls can sometimes because invasive, too.
Troy said, when in doubt, call the extension. But for the meantime, she has some simple advice on tackling this issue.
"You can't control the universe, but you can control your garden," she said.
For more information about identifying invasive plants and how to control them, contact the Penn State Extension in Luzerne County at 825-1701 or e-mail questions to [email protected].