For retired teacher and school superintendent Russel Ross, thoughts of childhood in the small town of Carrollton, Illinois, are nothing but wonderful, yet there are bittersweet memories too. Actually, I should say, he has memories of bittersweet.
“In the 1950s, people would stop by our house occasionally selling delicacies like blackberries, morel mushrooms, and bittersweet,” Ross told me in a recent letter. “I learned that I could find those things myself by riding my bike along the gravel roads outside of town,” he said, then added that his thoughts turned to bittersweet as he remembered his mother and how she used it to decorate around their house.
And, he challenged me to find a little bittersweet of my own.
To be clear, the berries of American bittersweet — Celastrus scandens — are a “delicacy” in a decorative sense only; they are toxic to humans. Nonetheless, for those like Russ and me — who have rural roots and a few gray hairs — bittersweet brings on memories as it was once prized for dining room table décor and fireplace mantels.
I remember finding it myself in a long-neglected fence row just east of our house every fall when its leaves yellowed and dropped, and its brilliant orange fruits would burst from their drying “capsules.”
Perhaps it’s because I quit searching for bittersweet that I now feel it has become rare; I also wonder about it because we have eradicated so many of those old overgrown fencerows, which, to me, are wondrously diverse digs for birds and rabbits, snakes and butterflies, raspberries and wildflowers. But, Scott Namestnik, botanist at the Natural Heritage Data Center (housed at the Division of Nature Preserves at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources), tells me that bittersweet really isn’t much endangered at all, although most of what we see isn’t the native variety either.
“A decline in American bittersweet could be due in part to agricultural practices of the past, where fencerow plants were sprayed with herbicides, but it’s also due to the ability of Asian bittersweet to outcompete American bittersweet and the pure number of seeds of the former that are introduced into the landscape,” Namestnik says.
Although I was happy to take up Russ’s challenge and search for bittersweet, my success was dampened when Scott told me that what I discovered was probably of the much less desirable Asian variety; being a botanist certainly helps one tell the nearly-imperceptible differences, determined by the slightly more yellow fruit of the Asian and the fact that American bittersweet’s berries and flowers are located near the very ends of the branches.
Scott also told me that the two varieties commonly “hybridize,” which he said is also possible of the bittersweet I found along a low-lying trail just to the north of the J.I. Case Wetlands, where I had gone in early November to watch for cedar waxwings.
“Asian bittersweet has become one of our worst invasive plants,” Namestnik says. “In addition to outcompeting American bittersweet, and likely playing a part in the decline of that native species, Asian bittersweet spreads rampantly, quickly destroying natural areas. It sprawls over native vegetation and shades and chokes native plants out. It outcompetes almost everything and grows up trees, creating vines that I’ve seen grow to over eight inches in diameter. These vines can girdle trees, and their weight can eventually cause trees to uproot and fall.”
Namestnik knows of what he speaks. With a degree in Botany — and a focus on Environmental Science — from Miami University, the 46-year-old recalled that he changed his major from Architecture as he was fascinated with plant taxonomy. Namestnik is also the co-author of two books published just this year; the first being “Wildflowers of the Midwest” (Timber Press) with Michael Homoya, and the second, “Wildflowers of the Indiana Dunes National Park” (Indiana University Press), written with Nathanael Pilla.
He tells me that like many plants that eventually become “invasive” (defined as a species that causes ecological or environmental harm in a non-native setting), Asian bittersweet was introduced in America in the 1860s for erosion control, and was “touted for its ability to cover unsightly objects in the home landscape.”
Yet, besides camouflaging the occasional outhouse or trash pit, bittersweet also became popular for its decorative qualities, and many years ago was even touted for its medicinal virtues. “The fruits of both species are poisonous,” Namestnik re-emphasized, but he also cites “Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants” that says bittersweet tea was once made from the bark of its roots to induce sweating, urination, and vomiting, and to reduce pain during childbirth.
It was also used as an ointment for burns, scrapes, and blisters, and as a folk remedy for chronic liver and skin diseases, rheumatism, and other ailments.
As a point of emphasis, Namestnik more than suggests staying away from ingesting it. When asked if plants like bittersweet are edible, he says he often replies: “Anything is edible…once.”
Although I can’t say I see much bittersweet — whether it be American or Asian — anywhere I walk, I hope Russ keeps poking around for it in the fencerows of Clark County, where he lives now. And, all the more power to him as he recalls his childhood, those dusty backroads, and his bittersweet memories.