Bittersweet Morning

By Willoughby Johnson | November 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 2005

It’s midmorning on a November Saturday, and I’ve been quail hunting since dawn with no success. At least that’s the way my dog, Basie, and I look at it. I’m sure the quail I’ve shot at and missed feel differently.

We come up a woody draw, which usually has a covey in it, and, though Basie gets birdy a time or two, we find nothing. Well, I shouldn’t say nothing. Where the draw peters out into fescue and harvested soybeans, we find a stand of bittersweet.

This time of year, bittersweet comes into its own. A few hard frosts have made the leaves drop from the vine. The clustered yellow buds unfold like wings, revealing bright orange berries that shine and pulse in the gray fall woods like tiny charms.

It’s a healthy stand of bittersweet, covering a couple of large cedars. I don’t think I’ll cause it any harm if I fill my empty game bag with enough to make a wreath. And since I’ve left my wife home for the morning with our toddler daughter, it wouldn’t hurt to bring back something pretty for the house.

The vine is hard to reach, and my dull knife keeps slipping off its slick bark. Finally the blade finds purchase. As I cut the vine, it occurs to me that I don’t hear the bell on Basie’s collar. I glance over and see her, taut as a bowstring, pointing into the fescue. Fescue is the bane of quail and quail hunters. No self-respecting quail would be caught dead there. If ever Basie was pointing a rabbit (or a skunk, or wood rat), it’s now.

I turn back to work and begin to carefully untwist the vine from the juniper tree. Out of the corner of my eye, I see 15 or 20 quail boil out of the accursed fescue 10 feet in front of Basie’s nose. Watching the quail crest the hill, I roll the bittersweet into a tight bundle and put it in my vest. At least I’ll have something there at the end of the day.

The quail have landed in a finger of woods that’s much too big for one hunter and one dog to cover well. But, if I recall correctly, there’s bittersweet on the far side of that finger. A little more would really make a wreath to write home about.

So I call Basie to heel, and we set off through the fescue, 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 and rheumatism. However, bittersweet is listed as a toxic plant by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so it should only be administered by health professionals—if at all.

I don’t collect bittersweet to cure an ailment—at least not any physical ailment. I gather it because it’s pretty, and it makes me happy to do it.

Back in the field

We reach the wood’s edge and find ourselves up against an impassable shoal of briars. Basie can smell that the quail are in the area. She keeps trying to go into the woods, but gets in only a few feet before backing up.

This is not a dog that’s shy about busting cover. But if you can imagine thousands of strands of concertina wire twisted 3 or 4 feet high and 20 or 30 feet deep, running for about 50 yards either side of us, you’ll have some idea of what she’s up against.

Besides, I know enough about quail to know that they hit the ground running. I suppose I could take a 50 percent bet and go one direction or the other to try to intercept them. But now my mind is on bittersweet. I’m glad to give the birds a break.

We head east, along the edge of the big woods, around the other end, to the north side where the bittersweet grows. I collect enough to finish my wreath, roll it carefully and put it in my game bag.

We follow the wood’s edge to a sedge-grass corner where there are sometimes birds, but Basie finds nothing. We cut through an open, wooded bottom back to the big soybean field and walk along by the woods. Basie must sense my dreamy lack of focus, because she trots along a few steps in front of me, not really hunting.

There’s a narrow, deep draw, a gully really, that I call Orange Gulch because of the Osage orange trees that gird it on either side. I generally walk down the dry creek bed at the bottom and let Basie work the whole thing as we go. For form’s sake, I do this today.

Basie senses we’re really hunting again (for once I’ve fooled her) and she works the cover eagerly, dashing up the steep gully sides and leaping with abandon, ears aloft, over the creek bed. The bell on her collar sings.

Several times I stoop very low to get under fallen limbs, stubby branches scraping my back, or I have to plow through briars or low branches that block my way. Basie covers the hollow as well as a dog could cover it, but we come out at the bottom without any sign of quail. I unload my gun and we walk down the sparse fence line between pasture and soybeans.

Back at the truck I get Basie some water and remove her bell. I case my gun and pull off my vest. When I put my hand in the game pocket to take out the bittersweet, I’m in for a surprise—it’s disappeared. The vines must have been lost in that last draw as I was getting past some branch or going under a log. My wreath is lying in a dry creek bed a quarter of a mile away. I’ve got nothing to take home to my wife.

I’m disappointed, of course. It’s just such a waste. I didn’t really need that bittersweet, but I wanted it. Something about collecting it made me feel more in touch with the season and with the earth. Now that I’ve lost it, wasted it, I wish I’d never cut it. It’s a less extreme version of the way I feel when I kill a bird and can’t find it.

I load Basie into the truck. Later, as we turn onto the blacktop, I think better of my disappointment. Maybe I’ve provided an unexpected feast for a covey of quail, a passing rabbit, or a turkey getting fat for winter. Maybe I’ve helped out a songbird that’s lingered too long in this country and is in need of a square meal.

Whatever eats those easy pickings I’ve left, in a few hours they’ll be spreading bittersweet seeds encased in fertilizer up and down the gully. Who knows? In years to come, perhaps I’ll walk down Orange Gulch and find a riotous carnival of bittersweet. Gathering, after all, begins with sowing.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler