Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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

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.

Bittersweet 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.

Bittersweet 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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