Behind My Red Door

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My Bittersweet Experience - part one

Happy September! WOW - it seemed like it would never get here this summer and even though it's a bit early, my bittersweet experience has begun.

I almost forgot it was Whatcha Working in Wednesady but this post fits right into what I have been working on. On Sunday I got the rest of my fall decor out (when I say fall, I don't mean Halloween or Thanksgiving because those boxes come down from the attic later) and I got some spaghetti sauce simmering for Labor Day. On Labor Day I got up early, assembled a big pan of lasagna, made a salad and garlic bread, set the table for a family gathering later in the day. Then DH and I set out to see if we could find a source for bittersweet. My old source no longer exists so this year we needed to go looking for a new source. It needs a lot of sunlight so it often grows on roadsides and along railways. I did some research and learned that it was planted along highways and railways as a way to control erosion before it was discovered that it grows out of control and will attach to any number of host plants, and eventually take over the entire landscape. You can see it creeping over stonewalls, along chain link fences, up tree trunks and anything else in site. Once it grows in a certain part of a town or city, it can be found all over that area so we headed towards Greendale because there are railways and multiple highway entrance and exit ramps where it was once planted. It has spread into the neighborhoods at this point.

This year we hit the mother load! I don't know if our rainy summer gets the credit or just coincidence, but as we drove down the road past a supermarket and some factories, right there at the edge of the road, in front of an abandoned building were huge vines, FULL of berries, right in plan view! We usually wait until the second week in September to even begin looking for bittersweet. Until the leaves turn yellow, it can be hard to spot if you don't know what you are looking for. Most of the time you don't even see the berries until you are right upon it. I can spot this plant a mile away but this was too easy and this crop was amazing - thick and lush and just waiting for ME!

David was able to climb up behind this cement structure and it was just loaded with plants and no poison ivy in site! Unfortunately, bittersweet and poison ivy like the same conditions so they often grown in tandem. There have been times I have spotted a bumper crop along a guard rail, and we'll go back to cut it and find that the ground behind the guard rail is just covered with poison ivy. Not this time!

Within a few minutes, we filled two trash bags with clippings. Here is a close up. If we had waited, until the leaves were yellow, the berries would be more yellow as well.

This is the pile waiting for me to strip the leaves. This pile was about 5 feet long and 15 inches deep. A LOT of leaf stripping was needed.

Here are my trusty tools starting with my special gloves. These gloves are made of spandex like material so they fit like a second skin and they have these great rubbery gripper palms and finger tips. I can easily move a delicate berry out of the way to get to the leaf stem. Next I have my Cutco kitchen shears - they work great when I need to cut the vines and they com apart for a thorough disinfection, my transistor clock radio to keep my company and my phone of course.

Here is just about 1/8 of the pile stripped of the leaves.

And the leaves from the above branches ....
This branch is a good example of what it usually looks like when I harvest the bittersweet - much more yellow.
After well over 20 years of harvesting and de-leafing piles of bittersweet, I have a very special way of removing the leaves without removing the berries. Actually I also learned they are called capsules - not berries. This picture shows how close the leaf stem is to the capsule's stems. If you just pull on a leaf, the capsules come off as well because they grow in the same direction and the leaf stems are usually thicker and more sturdy than the stems on the capsules. Here I am just starting to pull the leaf on the left in the opposite direction from the way it grows.

This shows my method even more clearly. (thanks Robin for the Macro lesson!)

And that is what I do on darn near everyone of those leaves! Yes, it take a long time and yes, I am crazy and yes, I probably have better things to do, but for me, it is worth the time and effort. I sit on the deck, listen to the brook babbling, listen to the radio, and in the end, I get weeks of enjoyment seeing it all around the house. I liken it to cutting a Christmas tree, bringing it home, getting it in the stand and then decorating it. That can take hours as well.This crop was so thick and lush and loaded with capsules and leaves so, it took me two sittings of a few hours each to get it all de-leafed! Once you cut the vines, the drying process starts to takes place so you really need to do this as soon as possible. Once it starts to dry, the capsules pop open and they will fall off during the de-leafing and arranging process and you loose half the color. You also want to arrange it as quickly as possible while it is still pliable for the same reason. Once the capsules pop open in three sections, most (but not all) of those sections stay attached if you don't disturb it.

Here are just a few shots of it in place before the yellowish green capsules pop open and reveal the orange fruit interior. That happens overnight or sooner. In the morning I will get up and find a few pieces of the capsules on the floor or table. It's like a little present telling me my show of Autumn color has begun in earnest. I wrap the bittersweet around the kitchen and dining room chandeliers and place it on shelves, in baskets and any where I want color!

I don't need another piece of Autumn decor - just some branches of bittersweet on a shelf, and instantly you know what season it is. None of it goes to waste.

Below is a sneak peek of it beginning to pop open! And even though the interior is not as dark orange as I prefer (because I picked it TOO early) it is still so exciting!

So there you have it, part one of my bittersweet experience. Now my bittersweet is lonely for pumpkins and gourds so that is next!

 Until next time - hugs, Linda