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Bittersweet Morning

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2005

Last revision: Nov. 22, 2010

across the dusty soybean field and over the hill. My mind, which should be on quail, is on bittersweet.

My delight in this plant might come as a surprise to anyone familiar with its destructive properties. In some parts of the country, bittersweet vines have strangled many a beloved tree, and even whole sections of forest. It’s become a sort of northern kudzu. In the prosperous suburbs around New York City, there are actually brigades of anti-bittersweet volunteers who spend their weekends tearing it out. And they don’t make decorative wreaths with it. They burn it.

Two bittersweets

A bit of taxonomy explains my love of bittersweet and others’ hatred for it. You see, two bittersweets grow in America. There’s the native variety, Celastrus scandens, commonly known as American bittersweet and the invasive Celastrus orbiculatus, known as Oriental or round-leaved bittersweet.

Like kudzu, Oriental bittersweet was introduced in the early part of the 20th century for erosion control. As invasive plants and critters are prone to do, it quickly got out of control and, like some botanist’s nightmare, began stalking the countryside, remorselessly strangling trees, shrubs and forests.

Oriental bittersweet has also been hard on American bittersweet. While the native stuff is difficult to cultivate and has berries only on the ends of its branches, Oriental bittersweet is relatively easy to grow and has berries all along its vines, making it more pleasing to some gardeners and decorators.

Oriental bittersweet is also better at photosynthesis, which means it can survive in a wider variety of habitats. So, in many parts of the country, poor old homebody American bittersweet has simply been beaten out by its flashy cousin.

The good news is that, in Missouri, there are still areas where American bittersweet is abundant. People who care to collect native bittersweet have their favorite spots and, like fishermen and morel-hunters, they guard their spots jealously.

I like to think the name bittersweet originated with some unnamed and unappreciated poet taxonomist in our past who chose the name to fit the season of bittersweet’s glory—the cusp of fall and winter. I recall reading once that the name came from the taste of the vine’s inner bark, but my admiration of bittersweet doesn’t extend to a willingness to taste it.

Others have tasted it because bittersweet has all sorts of purported medicinal qualities. These include use as an emetic and diuretic, as well as a treatment for cancer, liver and skin ailments

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