This is the time when fall festivals are abundant, and with them come the stands selling one of my favorite natives, American bittersweet.
Historically, American bittersweet has been quite plentiful throughout Midwestern forests, edges, and roadsides. However, because bittersweet produces such beautiful cranberry-orange colored berries it quickly has 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 either. Small sprays are typically $8 to $10. Larger sprays are anywhere from $16 to $20. I’m not talking about anything fancy here. I am referring to a handful of bittersweet stems (maybe five to seven) that someone has cut, held together and wrapped string around to hold it … 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. It has never grown there since.
Bittersweet has been disappearing from the American landscape over the last 20 years at alarming rates. At my mom’s farm in Platte County, we used to see bittersweet all over the place. Now we rarely see 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. I like to drive by that house and see the bittersweet I planted. It’s still growing like gangbusters.
When choosing your bittersweet, be very careful to purchase only the American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens). This is the only species that is 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 because birds fly bittersweet seeds will be dispersed and the invasive species will spread everywhere.
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. Your purchase encourages more poaching. Growing your own, and not buying cuttings, wreaths, or swags, is GREEN thing to do!
Lynn Youngblood is the executive director of the Blue River Watershed Association in Kansas City; a certified residential energy client service coordinator by the National Energy Retrofit Institute; and a past nature center manager for 20 years, including over 17 years with the Missouri Department of Conservation.