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During summer, bittersweet remains inconspicuous, slowly climbing and entwining the saplings on a fencerow. Its non-showy tiny greenish-white flowers and nondescript leaves are lost in the profusion of summer color and greenery.
In winter, when white dominates the scene, bittersweet glows. After the leaves shed, its bright orange fruit capsules persist on the vines and radiate like tiny beacons against the dull brown fall colors and bright white landscapes. If you discover this uncommon plant, follow the vines from the fruits back to their source and you can appreciate bittersweet's winding, climbing path. Remember its winter location and return there in summer to study a unique Wisconsin plant.
Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), sometimes called American bittersweet, is a native vine that thrives in open areas climbing along fencerows, roadsides and streambanks. By definition, vines have flexible stems that are unable to support them. They depend on other plants or manmade structures to rise to their place in the sun.
Unlike grapes, Virginia creeper and wild cucumber, which use curling tendrils to anchor to a support tree or fence, bittersweet climbs by twining its smooth gray stems and branches around and up a tree. Bittersweet is not afraid of heights and may ascend to the dizzying height of 60 feet or more. When suitable support is unavailable, bittersweet trails along the ground or climbs over piled rocks or hedgerows.
Bittersweet's leaves are long and lean – simple two- to five-inch pointed greenery that resembles elm and birch leaves – but the serrations along the edges are smoother and not so deep. Dark, shiny green leaves alternate on the stems and twigs.
From May to June, tiny flowers bloom in small clusters at the ends of twigs, so small that you need a hand lens to see them. It's worth a close look because bittersweet plants are polygamodioecious (poly-gamo-die-E-shus), a big word botanists use that means some of the flowers are male flowers with nonworking, rudimentary female pistils; some are female flowers with nonworking male stamens; and some are "perfect" flowers with fully developed male and female parts in one tiny flower. Having all three flower types in one plant is unique for a northern U.S. species.
Insects pollinate the bittersweet flowers. By July, the green unripe fruits have reached their maximum 3/8" size. These fruits, called capsules, ripen from September to October turning from dark forest green to bright blaze orange. When mature, each capsule splits open into three sections, folding back to reveal scarlet red arils, the fleshy "fruits" which encase three to six reddish-brown seeds. The bright contrast between red and orange is stunning on a browning autumn landscape.
The fruits are highly prized by songbirds, ruffed grouse, squirrels and chipmunks. I once discovered a small six-inch pile of orange capsules neatly deposited on a cutover tree stump. I imagined a chipmunk lurking nearby that had spent many hours gathering these fruits. After scrambling high into the tree canopy, he'd stuff his cheek pouches with plucked ripe fruits. Then returning to his favorite perch, he'd remove the seeds, discard the orange capsules and carry the seeds to add to his underground cache. The orange mound was a testament to his industriousness and the abundance of fruit that autumn.
Unfortunately, bittersweet also is highly prized by human collectors for use in floral arrangements and decorations. I believe its best use remains as a splash of color in nature's winter garden, decorating Wisconsin's fencerows, roadsides and streambanks, and serving as a grocery store for creatures that have no other.
Anita Carpenter writes from Oshkosh and savors every winter walk.