Autumn is my favorite season of the year!
I love building bonfires, bundling up in warm sweaters, and making arrangements out of fall grasses, flowers, and vines. As a kid on the farm, I enjoyed walking through the fields and forest edges collecting golden rod, sunflowers, little bluestem, and bittersweet. Back then, American bittersweet was quite plentiful throughout Midwestern forests, edges and roadsides. However, because bittersweet produces such beautiful cranberry-orange colored berries it has quickly become a favorite for autumn decorating. American bittersweet grows as a vine, but when fresh it can easily be manipulated into wreaths, arrangements, and other decorations.
I frequent a lot of fall festivals, participating in several, and browsing through all that I attend. In the last 10 years, I have not attended one single fall festival where someone was not selling bittersweet. The prices are not cheap. Small sprays are typically $8 to $10, and larger sprays are anywhere from $16 to $20. I’m not talking about anything fancy here, just five to seven bittersweet stems that someone has cut and wrapped string around – for twenty bucks.
I always ask where they got their bittersweet, and I always get one of two answers. Either they’ve collected it, or someone has collected it for them. Unless they have permission to collect on that land, they are poaching.
I had wild native bittersweet growing down on our road. I live in the country and had been watching it very excitedly so I could clip a few stems for decorations and leave the rest to regenerate next year and grow more and bigger plants. Then, someone took the whole plant in its prime.
Bittersweet has been disappearing from the American landscapes over the last 20 years at alarming rates. My mom still lives on her farm in Platte County and rarely sees it on her land anymore.
If you enjoy bittersweet, or would like to know more about it, I invite you to grow some right in your own backyard. I did that when I lived in the city and missed my wild nature life so much. There are male and female plants, so plant at least three in close proximity to each other. The bittersweet I planted is growing like gangbusters.
Be very careful to purchase only American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), the only species native to the United States. All other bittersweets are invasive and will not only take over your garden, but because birds eat the berries and they fly, bittersweet seeds will be dispersed. Please, be a responsible gardener, and gatherer. I hope if you enjoy the fall festivals, you’ll resist purchasing bittersweet and will instead grow your own. After all, it’s the green thing to do!
Lynn Youngblood is the executive director of the Blue River Watershed Association in Kansas City, a residential energy client service coordinator certified by the National Energy Retrofit Institute, and a past nature center manager.