It Came From The Orient

Celastrus orbiculatus is a woody, deciduous flowering vine better known as “oriental bittersweet.” I like to call it “ob.” Its common name sounds like the title of a dreamy, mildly offensive romance novel, set on a swank naval vessel docked somewhere in the Pacific. The vine is cloaked in an aura of domesticated exoticism.

First imported into the United States in the 1860s, OB blooms fierily in late summer. It flourishes from Maine to North Carolina, west to Illinois. Once you know to look for it, you’ll find it coating everything, a flowering kudzu-like thing.

Its small greenish flowers of spring give way to blood-red fruits. Delicate and inconspicuous petals harden into vinyl-like wrappers. These fuse into a capsule that surrounds the central kernel, whose shiny scarlet skin peeks out from gaps between triangular sheaths. Over the course of a few months, these glow yellow, then ochre, then pumpkin orange. Finally they split open. Sometimes the color pops out so bright that its hue recalls traffic cones or construction netting. The leaves are spherical, as “orbiculatus” implies. (The Latin name means something like “cloaking circles.”)

As the days of summer wane — in the sticky months of August in the Northeast, October farther south — Oriental bittersweet’s leaves drop one by one. They pile up near the plant’s base, coating front yards and back yards, alleyways and roundabouts. The flowers don’t wilt or droop, however. They become harder, firmer, brighter, lighting up their graying branches. (Only later do the berries fall, snacks for birds whose droppings spread the seeds far and wide.) As winter approaches, the seed pouches decorate the outdoors like ornaments. This ornamental quality is what today lands Oriental bittersweet — despite being classed by the Environmental Protection Agency as among “America’s most dangerous invasive species” — on restaurant dining tables as a featured centerpiece, and as the touches of color in innumerable decorative wreaths, seasonal and comfortably nondenominational in their palette of gutsy yellows and oranges. This loveliness is also what brought OB to America in the first place.

Native to Japan, Thailand, China, and Korea, Celastrus orbiculatus was spied by an American trader in Asia in the late 1850s. He noticed the vine and its beautiful berries and imagined that, with the right name and the right sales pitch, it might do well at home. Imported Asian flowers were all the rage at that time, and so the plant was christened Oriental bittersweet — a name intended to evoke its exotic origins while serving as an elegant contrast to “American bittersweet,” then a popular plant.

As the Western territories and Midwestern states continued to attract settlers, homesteaders acquired land that seemed barren in comparison with the lush Northeast. Alongside their new homes, settlers did their best to create miniature landscapes, replacing native foliage and grasses with cultivated botanical specimens drawn from distant lands. Despite increasing restrictions on Asian immigration in human terms, Oriental bittersweet initially received a warm welcome throughout its adopted country, a living exemplar of the Orientalist design craze of the time. By 1882, the year of the first Chinese Exclusion Act, herbaria featured specimens prominently. Botanical gardens put it on display.

But things soon went awry. A few decades later, the exotic import had been reframed as an unwelcome immigrant, a class of pernicious, promiscuous, and ultimately destructive “alien” beings. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, nativist sentiment reached its peak. “Foreign orchestrated” anarchist bombings prompted the Palmer Raids, which indiscriminately targeted leftists and immigrants. New restrictions on immigration and naturalization followed — the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the National Origins Formula and the Immigration Act of 1924. The idea of a botanical “invasion” resonated.

A few years earlier, panicked botanists in Indiana and Connecticut had first identified so-called “naturalized” specimens of OB. (In the botanical world, weeds just start growing.) OB flowered around houses, choking the local flora and cutting out light and access to soil nutrients. Oriental bittersweet strangled mighty oaks and maples, killed roses, and even smothered ivy. In the 1930s, government officials worried that OB outcompeted American bittersweet and its associated subspecies. Where it did not outright supplant the native species, it infiltrated the genetic makeup of the American plants, corrupting them with the taint of the Orient. The panic over OB’s nefarious fecundity continues to this day; the website of Indiana’s Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey warns, in boldface, “Note: do not buy, sell, or plant Oriental bittersweet,” while Massachusetts recently made it illegal to bring OB into the state.

For a brief spell during World War II, the invasive species was redeemed by exactly its own cloying nature and frightful rapidity of growth. Up and down the Atlantic shoreline, where coastal parks and island hospitals were turned into naval bases and army bunkers as part of the U.S. coastal defense strategy, anxious officials found an exceptional material to conceal military sites. Seeded around the perimeters of deep cement bunkers built on state forests and hospital grounds, Oriental bittersweet grew in no time into a disruptive pattern material — a living camouflage. Earth was laid atop the military buildings, and the vines reached up to cover the sodden roofs.

I recently did an art project at the site of one of these former military installations, on Bumpkin Island, a small sunflower seed–shaped landmass in the middle of Boston Harbor. Oriental bittersweet covers the island’s natural features in a fashion either destructive or decorative, depending on one’s point of view. Overgrowths of vines coat the deteriorating surfaces of a century-old hospital for “crippled children,” a U.S. Navy training camp used during both world wars, a cold war retreat for polio patients, and an eighteenth-century homestead. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages this island, supports OB’s destruction as a nonnative and undesirable species. But at this late date, it seems slightly perverse to distinguish between natives and settlers, with flowers as with peoples. While the government classifies Oriental bittersweet as one of the nation’s “least wanted alien plants,” florists still purchase it, tons every week, to make arrangements for swank bars in foreigner-savvy New York. Count me with the florists.