Bittersweet and Burning Bush
Nature Bulletin No. 250 December 25, 1982
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
BITTERSWEET AND BURNING BUSH
As season follows season, here in the Middle West, our landscapes and
our weather furnish ever-changing scenes of beauty and dramatic
interest. Our light-hearted flowering springs, our hot luxuriant
summers, and our mellow glowing autumns are as colorful as any on
earth. Winter, alone, seems sullen and somber when the land is bare
and bleak; a time of white solitude and silence when it is blanketed
with snow; harsh and savage when swept by icy howling winds.
However, our winter landscapes have their own distinctive hues and
bright splashes that please the eye. Banked masses of leafless trees and
shrubs offer sweeps of delicate color concealed at other seasons. The
slender twigs of willows produce broad bands of rusty orange along
roadsides, stream courses and the shores of ponds. A hawthorn thicket
on a slope becomes a cloud of smoky blue. A clump of aspens gleams
silvery against a winter sky. Pale gold and russet grasses. In a prairie
or a marsh, sway in the wind like fields of ripened grain. Red osier, or
red dogwood, may give a raw-beef edge to a woodland, and mats of
evergreen honeysuckle make deep green patches on a hillside.
Some bits of winter color are seen only at close range; like a moss-
covered stump or the fresh green rosettes of thistle and mullein
showing through a skift of snow. Brightest of all are the red or orange
fruits still clinging to certain shrubs and vines: the wild roses, the
coralberry, the nightshade, and four native members of the Staff-tree
family -- the Burning Bush or Wahoo, the Strawberry Bush, the
Running Euonymus and the Bittersweet -- all characterized by brightly
colored fruits which remain attached into the winter months. The last-
named is our only native plant which is regularly picked and marketed
for winter bouquets and Christmas decorations.
is a woody twining vine commonly found along fence rows
and forest edges. In fence rows it frequently grows in dense masses
with two or more long stems closely twisted about each other into a
living rope. Along forest edges and hawthorn thickets, the vines climb
to the top of trees 30 feet in height. The Indians gave the Plant a name
which means "spirit twisted", and used the berries for stomach trouble,
or the bark of the roots to make a healing salve. When snows were
deep and game scarce, they gathered the vines and made a thick soup,
rather unpalatable, from the inner bark.
has smooth light-green oval leaves arranged alternately on
the twigs, and clusters of little greenish-yellow flowers which appear
in May or June. Some vines have only male flowers and are barren.
Others have both male and female flowers and bear clusters of fruit
which mature in late autumn and, during winter, provide food for
birds. They are conspicuous because each fruit is a bright orange
capsule which bursts open to expose a crimson berry-like center.
Bunches of twisted branchlets, loaded with fruit, are very decorative
and the plant is disappearing in many places because of the ruthless
methods of market pickers.
The common Burning Bush or Wahoo is a shrub or, rarely, a small
tree as much as 25 feet tall, found along stream banks and wooded
floodplains. Unlike bittersweet, the Wahoo has leaves in opposite pairs
along the 4-angled twigs. The Indians called it "arrow-wood" because
the shoots grow very straight and long. In May or June it has clusters
of small maroon flowers. The fruits are purplish-red capsules which
pop open in autumn to expose the brilliant red centers which give the
plant its name.
The Twisted Spirit and the 'Wahoo bid you "Merry Christmas".
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Update: June 2012