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Using nature to celebrate the season

Last week Mary Alice and I went on a scavenger hunt for items in nature to decorate a Christmas tree. We were fortunate to find many different items, including bittersweet.

Many years ago, I saw bittersweet growing along the roadside and stopped to cut a few vines for Mary Alice, thinking she would be very pleased. I carried the bittersweet in the house, leaving a trail of bittersweet husks throughout our downstairs. I learned my lesson, and now, I leave the bittersweet on the porch.

In early November, we had a few hard frosts that caused the leaves of the bittersweet to drop from the vine. When this occurred the tan outer husks of the berries split open and curled back, revealing the bright orange berries that standout in the otherwise drab November woods.

The bittersweet vine attaches itself to whatever is available, such as a tree, shrub and even a tall weed. As the vine continues to climb it looks around for something higher. New stems often twine around each other, forming a braided vine that supports itself while reaching out into space.

The vine climbs by clinging and twining round and round and never loses its grip on the host plant. Although bittersweet vines will kill young trees, the oriental bittersweet vines have slain many a giant tree.

Capable of reaching four inches in diameter, oriental bittersweet vines wrap so tightly around their victims in a corkscrew fashion that the trees are strangled, in a process called girdling.

A tree hugged to death by bittersweet will have grooves that are over a half-inch deep all the way up its trunk.

After the bittersweet vine is cut away from the trunk, the tree appears as if it had grown in a corkscrew like fashion.

Many times the small sapling killed by the bittersweet becomes someone’s walking cane.

We have two types of bittersweet growing in Pennsylvania. One is our native bittersweet Celastrus scandens, which is commonly called American bittersweet. American bittersweet is not as abundant in our area since it is difficult to cultivate, and in the wild, the plant has suffered from over cutting.

American bittersweet has a lance-shaped leaf, with the berries growing on the end of the vines.

The second type is the oriental bittersweet Celastrus orbiculatus, which is also known as round-leafed bittersweet.

This bittersweet grows in a wide variety of habitats.

Berries grow along the vine, making it more appealing to gardeners and decorators.

The color of the arils (coating on the red fruit) is different on the two plants.

In the American bittersweet, the coating is orange, and in the oriental variety, the coating is either a tan or light yellow.

Since the American bittersweet is scarce due to extensive picking, one should learn to tell the difference between the two species and be sure to only pick the oriental type.

Be careful to leave enough of the plant to insure survival, and of course, be sure to have permission from the landowner.

In the prosperous suburbs around New York City, the oriental bittersweet has become a problem, being compared to the kudzu (mile a minute plant). There are actually brigades of anti-bittersweet volunteers that spend their weekends tearing it out. What isn’t used to make decorative wreaths is destroyed.

The name bittersweet is said to come from the vine’s inner bark, which is said to have a bitter-sweet taste.

In one book, I read that bittersweet has many medicinal abilities, including the treatment for cancer, liver, skin ailments and rheumatism.

In olden days, the bittersweet berries were crushed and then applied to warts and other skin conditions; however, a warning from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has bittersweet listed as a toxic plant.

In Sands County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote, “I like the bittersweet because my father did, and because deer, on the first of July each year, begin suddenly to eat the new leaves, and I have learned to predict this event to my quests.

I cannot dislike a plant that enables me, a mere professor, to blossom forth annually as a successful seer and prophet.”

When talking about bittersweet some people might think you are talking about nightshade Solanum dulcamara, which also carries the common name of bittersweet.

Henry David Thoreau, wrote in his never completed Wild Fruits, “The bittersweet berries begin July 28th and are in their prime in August and September. The bright red berries are still handsomer than the flowers. This is one of the kinds that grow in drooping clusters, and I do not know any more graceful and beautiful clusters than these.” Thoreau was not writing about our bittersweet but nightshade, again pointing to the confusion when using common names.

There are over 1,000 species of nightshade (mainly in the tropics) but only 30 kinds are found in our country.

Here, in the northeast, we have only two species, the black nightshade Solanum nigrum and the red-berried bittersweet nightshade Solanum dulcamara. The berries of the nightshade become a ruby-like and are most attractive; however, they should never be eaten under any circumstances because they are very poisonous. It could come as a surprise to learn that the nightshade is closely related to the tomato and eggplant.

On that sunny afternoon when Mary Alice and I climbed into the truck and headed for the countryside, we collected cones, acorns, winterberry holly, milkweed pods, and bittersweet to decorate the tree.

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