Can you guess the name of the plant in the photo, growing sprightly green in the woods when everything else is as brown as a pot of baked beans? The first time I noticed it, many years ago, I was mystified. As I studied it close up, I realized that it was something I had planted as a seedling when we first moved here and then promptly forgot about. I am very good at that. Now every year when winter approaches, as I watch to see which trees and bushes (other than evergreens) stay green the longest, this doughty bush always wins the contest. It outlasts weeping willows and peach trees, the usual runner-ups. I draw the kind of optimism from this strange plant that I need to head into cold weather with my chin up.
It’s a Tatarian bush honeysuckle. I got it, if I remember correctly, from the Soil Conservation Service, which was encouraging landowners to put out plants that produce food for wildlife, in this case tiny red berries. I’ve learned the hard way that just because the Department of Agriculture champions something does not mean it is a good idea. The USDA also championed autumn olive and multiflora rose at one time and I was dumb enough to plant some. Both are great for wildlife but a curse on the farmer, in my opinion. One other time I followed governmental advice. I planted Kentucky 31 fescue in my pastures. There are better fescues to plant now, believe me. K-31 stays green into winter to make cold weather pasture, but I maintain, only a little jokingly, that this forage comes from genes of some non-vegetative fabric that needs to freeze and thaw twice before a cow can chew it. K-31’s advantage is that a herd of elephants could run across a well-established field of it in thaw time and hardly dimple the sod surface. I was told when I planted the stuff that “it will not spread.” That is an absolute lie, and I was pleased to see David Kline, in his charming new book, “Letters from Larksong,” agree.
But I lucked out with Tatarian honeysuckle. It is not native here so I still don’t trust it, but it is not invasive like its terrible cousin, Japanese honeysuckle. The latter is a vine that almost succeeded in dragging all the trees in the northern halves of Kentucky and West Virginia into the Ohio River before weed-killers came along. I theorize that it suffocated to death whatever planet it first grew on and then kept on growing through space until they found Earth.
Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculata) is just as bad as Japanese honeysuckle (both have been sold as attractive ornamentals in the past) and it is now encroaching woodland all over. I have to blame myself rather than a government expert for this monster because I planted it out of my own ignorance (how frail we all are in the inner spaces of the brain). I thought I was planting American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens). Oriental bittersweet is capable of climbing a goodly-sized tree and choking it to death. It can also cover the floor of a woodlot with an impenetrable jungle of vines. It has rounded leaves and the orange berries occur at many points along the stem. American bittersweet has longer, narrower leaves and the berries occur in clusters at the end of the vines which make it the more attractive of the two for fall decoration. American bittersweet is not nearly as invasive and destructive. The two are actually hybridizing now and the crosses tend to favor the Oriental.
I’ve waited in vain and in ignorance for quite a few years for mine to grow clusters of berries on it. Just recently, reading a magazine, “Woodlands and Prairies,” I realized my mistake. The magazine’s description (Fall, 2009 issue) of the destructiveness of Oriental bittersweet is frightening. I intend to spray the living bejeebers out of my planting next spring and I might not say anything negative about Monsanto for at least, oh, maybe three months.
There’s something else about alien bittersweet and honeysuckle species that could be handy to know if you raise livestock. Sheep and cows like to graze them both a whole lot more than K- 31 fescue