In Search of Red Jewels For Holiday Trimmings

My small daughter, Madeleine, and I left a trail of pale red dots in the grass as we walked from the small wood lot behind our suburban house to the front door. Our arms were full of greenery and a long branch of bright red berries popping from their lightweight round casings. We had been out searching the woods for natural holiday trimmings.

The pine and holly were gratefully snipped and smelled, but the bittersweet was a bounty. I cut this piece of the vine and carefully extracted the tendrils from the long branch to which they were clinging.

Bittersweet lives gracefully upon the branches of forest trees and is tenacious in its woody grasp. Snipped carefully and sparingly, it grows back again once springtime arrives.

The long viny spray trailed onto the ground and brushed the grass as we walked. Leading the way, Madeleine looked back and spied the dropped dots on the grass. I thought of Hansel and Gretel and how our path was marked with bittersweet. It was one of those images that will remain when I remember this particular holiday season and how we began to decorate the house.

In fact, bittersweet has been a part of our Christmas decorations since we discovered it being sold by the bunch at a local fruit stand in Kentucky nine years ago. Although it was in an autumn market full of pumpkins and yellow gourds, that bushelbasket of bittersweet was striking in a festive way.

Somehow the contrast between the opulence of those clustered vermilion jewel-like berries upon the slender bare twig seemed like the perfect combination of splendid hope amid apparent austerity; it made the dark days of winter feel cheery.

Hearing that bittersweet grew wild upon a particular stretch of country road, my whole family set out early one winter dawn to track down the bounty. Winding around narrow country roads past farmhouses and fields, pastures and meadows, we all looked intently upon each overgrown fence row, hoping for a burst of red.

After many miles and near defeat, I spotted a patch of red. We pulled over and all jumped out to cut a few heavily laden twigs off the vine, careful to leave plenty to keep growing.

That year I was satisfied to poke sprigs of bittersweet throughout the pine boughs on our mantlepiece and to hang a small bunch of bittersweet upside down in our farm kitchen to enjoy throughout the year. By the next winter, that dusty bunch had become shriveled and brittle, though still bright, and we were ready for a fresh replacement.

Unfortunately, we discovered that our area of Kentucky was running low on bittersweet because the farmers were spraying fence rows for weeds. But I was fortunate to have a friend renting a house in the woods. She discovered five trees full of wild bittersweet twined through their branches. We both picked enough to share. I made wreaths of boiled honeysuckle vine for all my friends and family, and I adorned the blond bark-stripped wood with the bittersweet.

The wreaths were like a tribute to the feisty endurance of nature's untamed beauty - the prolific honeysuckle and the persistent bittersweet, one yielding the sweet scent of white flowers and the other the wonder of bright winter color.

Each year thereafter, I looked endlessly for bittersweet even though my country friend had moved. I'd find a sprig or two, but never the bountiful cache of the year we had enough to share. That country friend and I would commiserate over the shrinking supply of something we had found to be so important to our winter joy.

When we moved to the city, my encounter with bittersweet ended. I refused to buy the expensive bunches that local florist shops were selling. Somehow within that hothouse environment I could not find the heart to buy a supply of my favorite wild plant.

But now we've moved to Maryland, to a suburb not too far from Washington. Although I haven't seen too many acres of fields or fence rows, there is an abundance of bittersweet's favorite friend, the tree. The city, as if unable to obliterate every trace of the thick forest that once covered this historic area, has tall old trees that tower over major roads and new developments.

And after that first autumn when the trees were like elaborate tapestries in the air, a few weeks of falling leaves gave way to miles of bare branches. It was then that I noticed, with amazed delight, bittersweet heaven. Cascading in garlands full of glorious growth was the most abundant bittersweet I had ever seen. As I drove by these trees my glance would catch the bright red berries hanging from treetop to trunk.

And while I have missed the rural landscape of Kentucky and the friends I left behind, this bountiful bittersweet has been a warm compensation. It has kept my eyes looking upward, my hands often full of those homey bunches of pure brightness, and my house trimmed with a sprig of bittersweet in every room, from mantlepiece to china cabinet to Christmas wreath.

This evening, after a trip to our wood lot, I laid a wild branch of bittersweet upon the living room's tan carpet. Marveling at the rich color, I began to cut short but abundant twigs the right size for a small box. Packing the twigs just right, I fit in a large wreathful of these berries, fresh and just popped from their paler hull. Tomorrow that box will make its way to Kentucky, to my old friend who will share in its memory and cheer.

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