Wednesday, November 24, 2010


American Bittersweet AMcC
Spring is a time of easy metaphors for renewal, hope, life. Autumn, well, not so much. Lovely fall colors are cheery, but brief. Just as Goldengrove is unleaving, a magnificent vine is revealed, covered with clusters of small, shiny red fruits, surrounded by open capsules of orange. We call it American Bittersweet, Celastrus scandens. Kurz notes in Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri that Celastrus is a Greek name for a tree and scandens means climbing. But how did it get its melancholy English name? Perhaps its autumnal display associates it with the demise of summer, the season of loss.

We humans like to ascribe meaning to natural phenomena. The albatross symbolizes guilt; the raven, death; the lark, “blithe spirit;” bittersweet, remembrance.

The contradictory name has been on my mind, since the furry friend you see in my profile picture died this week. For those who have experienced the death of a dear pet, I don’t need to explain my feelings. For those who have not, I don’t think I can adequately describe it. Instead, I’ll focus on the sweet memories.

Rosie and I went everywhere together for more than 16 years. She accompanied me on many birding trips, though she really preferred chipmunks, moles, and other mammals. She camped with us in the Rocky Mountains one June, and I was surprised to see her barking at two Gray Jays. She didn’t usually pay attention to birds. Then I saw one dart in and snatch a bit of her fur while the other stole a kibble from her bowl.

Rosie the Fishin' Dog AMcC
My brother-in-law called her “the fishin’ dog.” Her favorite spot was the tiny pond in my back yard. I keep a few goldfish there to eat mosquito larvae, and once she spotted them, she wanted them. She tried to catch a fish every day of her life and never succeeded. Far from being discouraged, she came back to the job fresh every time. She spent so much time in the water that one summer I had to take her to the vet for swimmer’s ear.

Like a true a terrier, she was independent. She seldom asked to sit in my lap as I watched TV, but she did like a good nature show now and then, especially if there were bears to bark at. When she was a puppy, she sat up on the bed while I watched Turner and Hooch; starring the tidy detective Tom Hanks and the untidy Dogue de Bordeaux named Hooch. She barked and jumped and generally went nuts every time Hooch came on the screen. That video was like a Jane Fonda exercise tape for Rosie.

If you grow bittersweet in your woodlot or on an arbor, be sure you get the native variety, not Celastrus orbiculatus, Round-leaved or Asiatic bittersweet. The fruits of Round-leaved bittersweet are less showy, and the plant is aggressive. As the name suggests, the easiest way to determine if the vine is native to the US or an invasive invader is the shape of the leaves. American bittersweet’s leaf is not round, but an elongated oval with a pointed tip. Sweet as they are to look at, the fruits are poisonous.


  1. Again, Anne, so sorry about Rosie. But we're so much better off because they were in our lives.

  2. Thanks David. I agree, animals can make us more human.

  3. The loss of a beloved pet is always hard, but while they are with us they enrich our lives beyond measure. A poignant post and stunning photo of Celastrus.

  4. Anne, I came over here because Ted spoke so highly of your blog, and the first thing I saw was the beautiful photo of Celastrus and the second was your loss of Rosie. I'm so sorry. I had a Cairn Terrier once and loved her intelligence, her energy, and her willful-ness. Thank you for the great stories, especially the delightful one of the gray jays! ~ Mary

  5. Thanks Ted and Mary, pets really are a wonderful gift of laughter and energy. Come to think of it Mary, Cairns have a lot in common with those assertive Gray Jays! Looking for bittersweet in the fall has been a family tradition, a process that has acquired layers and layers of meaning.

  6. Hi Anne,

    Such a loss to no longer have Rosie with us. You have so many memories of her. . .and Rosie had such a wonderful life with you. Mary Eileen Rufkahr

  7. Thanks, Mary Eileen. She really enjoyed those butterfly counts. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

  8. So sorry about your loss, Anne. I hope happy memories are stronger than present sorrow.

    Ellen (Hickamorehackamore)

  9. They are, Ellen! Rosie was always such a happy dog, so it's wonderful to remember her. Thanks!