Everyone loves what has been named bittersweet for autumn decorating. Surprisingly, it is not the original bittersweet botanically; but yet a Solanum genus of Nightshade was first designated as such; which is not a cousin, relative, or even lookalike. Through the centuries names get coined or interpreted and now to us what we know as bittersweet is just bittersweet, botanically incorrect or not.
Next to pumpkins and maple trees, there is no match for the display it puts on a front door, or beautiful country table. It rambles, it diverts, and it goes around and out west. It is a free spirited thing that has no rhyme or reason, which is what I adore about it the best. I work with what shape it gives me with no two designs the same-love it. As Willow and I walked this morning, the woods seemed ablaze from the vibrant yellow and orange berries….everywhere we looked. Alongside us, around us, hanging from the trees, and shooting out to grab our feet. As we stood looking, I wondered if we stayed too long if we too would be wound up in this voracious vine. For ever so long, it seemed a difficult quest every year to locate nice bittersweet for the store; and now here we stood with it about to attach itself to us.
Why All The Bittersweet
So today, there are 2 vines we commonly refer to as bittersweet, and to a wanderer’s eye, barely different. Our American bittersweet indigenous to North America is Celastrus Scandens and then we have the Oriental bittersweet invader of Celastrus Orbiculata, introduced from the Orient in the mid 1800’s as an ornamental and for erosion control. Hmm, as usual when you upset an ecosystem it never seems to come to a good end; I think we should have left it where it was. It is a foreign strangler, incredibly invasive and a real menace taking over in 25 states as far west as Montana.
We have nearly picked & decorated ourselves out of ours to where the NY State DEC named it a protected plant. They have listed it as “”exploited and vulnerable”; including it on their list to be officially, designated as rare. Every plant has a specific purpose on the planet, none are useless and just weeds as many say. Long ago before decoration; Native Americans knew to use it medicinally, for color pigment, and its vines for rope and weaving baskets. So, if you are so lucky as to have our bittersweet; please try to encourage it to grow and protect it because we are losing it to a rival import. If you would like to have your own American bittersweet seeds and plants; they can be purchased at various nurseries and seed houses across the country.
Is it American or Not
Like us humans the plants are basically the same yet different. Ours has a larger berry of course; isn’t everything bigger, better, and louder in America? 🙂 However, unless you have a branch of each side by side it is difficult to go by berry alone. The best things to look for are just 2 characteristics. Ours has an elliptical leaf with berry clusters at the tips of the branches. While our invaders have a bit rounder leaf with berry clusters all over the vine; wherever the leaves are attached. Yes, what you mostly see everywhere and probably on your door right now is the invader; this bittersweet gang is trying to take over our turf and a woods war is on. The oriental is tougher than ours; it smothers trees and crowds our low growth plants; and displacing our own through competition and hybridization. You can always tell a gratefully freed, tree that spent its life encased with it by the scars the vines left.
Let’s Level the Field
The plant world is not much different from ours, as we are part of the same kingdom. So being we all love bittersweet for decorating, lets level the playing field some. One positive; many bird species eat the berries, as do other pollinators. Whether you gather or purchase your bittersweet, first try to discern if it is American or Oriental. If Oriental , which most is; decorate and craft carefully as any berries or cut stems can and will winter over and root in the Spring. For this reason, and especially when the decorations are taken down; don’t add them to a compost pile or roadside where the seeds can germinate or the vines can root. Spent vines and wreaths should be cut up and placed in a box or bag to dry –along with their dried berries. In the spring they can then be disposed of with your normal trash.
Plants are far from mindless, they are opportunists and survivalists. So decorate away because Autumn without bittersweet is like Winter without holly; just keeping in mind that every action has a reaction, even with the wily bittersweet.