Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Just as bittersweet is found entwined around trees and bushes, the word "bittersweet" is entwined in my mind with the word "autumn".

The first time I ever heard about bittersweet was when I was 15 and read Betty Smith's book "Joy in the Morning." In the book, Annie McGairy, who had never seen bittersweet either, passes by a florist's window and is captivated by the beautiful red and orange berries. She stops in to inquire about the cost, which turns out to be 10 cents a stem. For Annie, this is a lot of money - a real extravagance - but she can't resist purchasing some, and the florist wraps her bittersweet stems in florist's paper.

When I moved to Bismarck, I learned that keeping one's bittersweet-gathering spot a secret is akin to mushroom hunters in Provence keeping mum about the location of their truffles. I have a friend who always brings home big loads of bittersweet branches every fall. I kept asking her to take me along on these excursions, but she never seemed to call. Finally, it dawned on me (I am a bit slow on the uptake) that she was NEVER going to call me to go with her.

Actually, I know where a lot of bittersweet grows - south of Bismarck in Sibley Park by the Missouri River. However, it is against the law to take any natural material from state parks, so I have never taken any. I suppose I could scope out a site in the daytime and return at night to purloin some. However, knowing my luck, I would fall in the river instead.

I have managed to find some bittersweet on my own - in ditches along the back roads by the river. In North Dakota, at least, this is where bittersweet seems to thrive.

I especially love finding bittersweet that hasn't opened yet. In this state, the berries appear orange. But pick them, bring them into your warm home, and in a very short time you'll see the orange outer layer split and flare out to become the bittersweet "petals". Hiding inside are the orangey-red berries. Some years, I can't find any bittersweet, and have to rely on finding some at the various fall craft festivals held in the area.

Stems of bittersweet look wonderful no matter how they are displayed, but they look especially good in straw baskets or copper or rusty containers.

I could belabor the obvious and natter on about autumn being a bittersweet season, but I think that's all been said before.

P. S. I mentioned the book "Joy in the Morning" by Betty Smith, of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" fame. Apparently, a lot of people think this book is not quite up to par with ATGIB, which is of course a classic. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and Penguin Books has chosen it as a Modern Classic. It tells the story of Annie McGairy, a Brooklynite like ATGIB's heroine, Francie Nolan. Annie is transplanted to an unnamed (in the book) Midwestern university where her brand-new husband is studying law. I just found out tonight, by Googling Betty Smith's name, that the school is the University of Michigan. Like ATGIB, "Joy" is an autobiographical novel for Smith.

Joy in the morning? Yes, it is a joy to see an uneducated Annie try to be a good wife to Carl, to see her make friends with members from all the social strata of the town, and to slowly, slowly start to gain an education for herself. I especially loved the part where she finds a tattered old copy of "War and Peace" for a quarter, patches it back together and laboriously - with the help of a dictionary - studies the book page by page and re-writes it too!

By the way, do not bother with the dreadful movie that was based on this book.


Mary said...

Julie - enjoyed reading about Bittersweet. Don't forget that it is poisonous! They say don't use it in table decorations where the berries could fall into food!

Your collages are lovely.

Rowan said...

The bittersweet berries are so beautiful and such vibrant colours. We don't get them in UK though on my last trip to the US I brought home a wreath of fake bittersweet which I hang outside in the autumn.

Lila Rostenberg said...

I had heard that people keep secrets about where to find bittersweet...just as well since it could become endangered (or is it already?).
I came across a letter from 14 years ago, which my daughter wrote about reading, ATGIB, and how much she loved it. I read "Joy in the Morning" as a teenager and liked it...though I certainly don't have your powers of recall!

Annie Jeffries said...

I've never heard of bittersweet Julie and loved reading about it and seeing the lovely pictures. I also thought the story of Joy in the Morning made a lovely contrast to the bittersweet tale.