Celastrus orbiculatus or Oriental Bittersweet – what is in a name? The sign signifies for me an elephant gray whorled trunk, perhaps three inches in diameter that has a serpentine strangle-hold on a tree. The vine spirals upwards, branching into many clinging and tangled strands. In the summer, in full leaf, the bittersweet will hide the tree, cover its leaves, and perhaps so weight its host that the tree will topple. The vine struggles up for light, and as it spreads its charming orange-eyed berries blink out of a yellowish caul. These are the apparently innocuous fruits and vines that we happily wreath at holiday time into hoops of Christmas colors – yes, we propagate this invasive pest in just that way – tolerating for its beauty the means of its reproduction.

I spent a few hours yesterday in a part of our property that borders a major road. Bittersweet came to this country from the Far East over a hundred years ago because of its vigorous growth and attractive berries. “it was planted as an ornamental, for erosion control along highways and for wildlife food and habitat” – so declares the Forest Invasive Plants Resource Center. Its delicate white flowers and orange berry fruits contrast against its glossy foliage. Type “oriental bittersweet” into Google and all the entries will point to control and elimination. It is an invasive species most happily adapted to the climate of the North East. It dominates, overgrows, and condemns its hosts.


I took my chainsaw and began the process of sawing through vines that have grown untouched for perhaps fifteen years. The largest were inches in diameter and they intertwined themselves with other such vines, spiraled up and scarred the bark of trees to form a thatch above, thick with its curled stems grasping for the sun.

I cut twenty, perhaps thirty of such large vines, knowing as I did I was simply killing the growth in the trees above. To eliminate the plant, I would have to pick axe the roots and drag them out of ground – but this was highway verge once graded to a slope as  the road was pushed through sixty years ago: hard packed, waste ground. I know that the roots will sprout soon, sending new tendrils out, perhaps joining to self-support as they wave to hook a low lying branch or obliging tree trunk.

It is too tempting to draw comparisons: Celastrus orbiculatus like rust never sleeps. And it trips you up, grows in inaccessible places, just out of reach into a low branching cedar, even up a jack pole supporting the telephone poles along the road. I have landed flat on my bum pulling hard to yank out its yellow colored roots: and I have simply given up at trying to loosen its web of growth from a favorite tree.

Old Adam knew the price of knowledge. This is the thorn the earth gives that he had to sweat to combat. I grope for understanding more than the obvious. The vines have something about them of the Fall – a blind material recalcitrance, a brute refusal to do anything but obey the demands of generation, growth and reproduction. The bittersweet will be flouting the attempts at control of those who follow me here long after I am gone. And with Spring I know that a force too great for me to contain will be pushing up, ready to weight the trees we so value: tree of life, tree of knowledge.  


Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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