Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 23, 2007

A Bittersweet Concern

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:18 pm

  Contrasted against the backdrop of leafless gray shrubbery and framed by an equally gray winter sky, the brilliant oranges and reds of the bittersweet are almost electric in intensity. Their artistic spacing and informally draped arrangement demands attention. Close scrutiny only enhances the experience. The individual fruits of this woody vine are fine examples of natural design – three parted scarlet berries surrounded by yellow-orange stars. The fleshy red portion is called an “aril” and each chamber holds one or two brown seeds. It’s the packaging and not the contents that matter in this case, however. There’s nothing better to fill the photographer’s frame or the flower arranger’s vase. This is a good thing 

 To an overwintering bird, this fruit laden vine is a welcome sight.  The arils are eagerly consumed by the likes of chickadees and blue jays and the remaining seeds are subsequently pooped out.  This is how Bittersweets get around.  Unfortunately, this is a bad thing because of the particular bittersweet in question. This is an example of a bad bittersweet. 

  There is a good bittersweet – a native plant called the American Bittersweet.  The bad one pictured here is called the Asiatic Bittersweet and it, as you might have concluded, hails from way out east. It is native to Japan, Korea, and China north of the Yangzi River. Telling the difference between the two can be difficult to near impossible.  The Yankee version has elongate oval leaves and produces berries in a cluster at the end of the vine twigs.  Alien bittersweets have rounded leaves and berries in small clusters along the entire stem. Since the vines are sans leaf this time of year, the only things to go by are the naked fruit facts. The alien plant is supposed to have a yellow outer covering and the native plant an orange covering, but one person’s yellow is somebody elses orange (are school buses plain yellow or orangish yellow). The Asiatic plants are believed to hybridize with the native ones anyway, which blurs trait differences and fudges identity. This too is a bad thing. 

  The best thing to do is to rip the plant out by its roots and clip off the attractive berry producing sections for your dried flower arrangement.  After all, the Asiatic plant was brought to this country in the 1860’s – 1870’s as an ornamental. Please make sure you are ripping up the correct plant before doing so.  The American Bittersweet is relatively rare nowadays and destroying the native plant would be a bad thing.   Asiatic bittersweets are listed as noxious invasive weeds because they are diluting the native bittersweet and they tend to grow in dense smothering clusters. They will not take over the world but should be herded back into captivity.   

  Now that I have burdened you with these bittersweet concerns, I might as well tell you a few more bad things about all bittersweets.  First of all, they really aren’t supposed to be called bittersweets at all. They are officially known as staff vines. The bittersweet title rightly belongs to a wild member of the tomato family commonly called bittersweet nightshades.  Our brightly fruited vines were supposedly given the copycat title because their berries looked like those of the nightshade, but they really don’t.  Confused? Well, it appears that a lot of folks are confused by this plant. This person, for instance, was confused when she named her ceramic creation “bittersweet” (see here).  

  There is one thing that needs to be made perfectly clear.  The Bittersweet fruit is deadly poisonous for humans.  This is a good thing to know.  By dictionary definition, something bittersweet has elements of both happiness and sadness. Maybe the false name is appropriate after all. 

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