The roadside vignettes feature this colorful vine overtaking blackboard fences and twisting around tree trunks affording the grey days of November their own faded charm. Even though this vine is invasive and can easily choke out precious native plants and the strongest of trees, I love to see it growing like witches hair, tossing and swinging in the chilly, dry air. It defies the onset of darkness as winter approaches fast and furiously.
Did you know that there is also an American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens)? Yet, as far as the Oriental variety is invasive, the American variety is not and is even a protected plant species. It does not germinate as easily as its Oriental cousin and it's berries only form at the end of each branch of the vine, not along the entire vine. American Bittersweet has been virtually overtaken by it's aggressive cousin that was introduced to North America, back in the 1860's, ironically, to help combat soil erosion along roadsides. It now grows freely along the Eastern Seaboard and reaches as far west as the Rocky Mountains. And, as we know, all too well, it is very hard to eradicate. Even more surprising is that both of these vines are really false bittersweet. The real bittersweet is actually a plant called Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) that looks markedly different and is a member of the potato family.
In the language of flowers, bittersweet represents truth. Perhaps because truth can hurt sometimes, but in the end, truth becomes a satisfying closure and, perhaps, even sweet. It is a poisonous plant to humans in as far as it will make you quite sick if you eat it. However, bittersweet is the survival winter food for many birds, especially Eastern bluebirds, grouse and pheasants. Even those pesky squirrels who may have misplaced their stash of nuts will dine on bittersweet.
So, as fall gives way to winter, bittersweet tempts us to decorate our fall tables and doorways, reminding us that November will not go quietly into the night. Bittersweet vines will decorate this month and climb,like Jack on the beanstalk, into the sky and wave good-by, carefree and colorful.