Living in New York City, you’re used to seeing random things you wouldn’t expect. Normally, it’s people being the freaks that they are or some random spot – bar, restaurant, gallery, park, etc. – you stumble upon that’s been there for ages that seems like it was ripped straight out of your wildest and greatest dreams. If you look hard enough, there are majestic patches of wildlife hidden all over the Five Boroughs. I’m talking about owls in public parks and falcons nesting on high-rise ledges.
Walking home a few weeks ago during the early days of winter, I stumbled upon some striking plant life while on the way to the store. It was hanging down from a Long Island Rail Road overpass. I was immediately drawn to the vine’s berries which were bursting with color. Turns out, it’s called an oriental bittersweet and the damn thing is poisonous as hell!
Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is a perennial vine that is native to Asia and is considered an invasive plant species in many parts of North America. It’s known for its distinctive woody vine that can grow up to 100 feet long and its bright orange-red berries in fall and winter, which are attractive to birds and wildlife.
The plant was introduced to North America in the late 1800s as an ornamental plant. It was widely planted for its showy yellow-orange berries and attractive vines that could be used to decorate homes and gardens. However, the plant quickly escaped cultivation and spread aggressively into natural areas, where it became a major invasive species. The plant’s ability to climb and smother native vegetation made it a formidable competitor, and it has now become widespread throughout much of the eastern United States and Canada.
The leaves of Oriental bittersweet are glossy and dark green, and are arranged alternately on the stem. The vines can climb trees and other vegetation, smothering and killing them by cutting off their light, water and nutrients. It can form dense thickets that displace native vegetation, altering wildlife habitat and reducing biodiversity.
Oriental bittersweet reproduces both through seeds, which are spread by birds, and through underground root systems, which can produce new shoots. It can grow in a wide range of soils and light conditions, making it a highly adaptable and hardy species.
Control of Oriental bittersweet is challenging and requires a multi-pronged approach, including cutting and removing plants, pulling out root systems, and using herbicides. It is important to be aware that the berries and root systems of oriental bittersweet are toxic to humans and animals, so care should be taken when working with the plant.
The toxic chemical in Oriental bittersweet is celastrol. Celastrol is a triterpenoid that can cause symptoms of toxicity such as gastrointestinal upset, tremors, and seizures when ingested in large amounts. It has a molecular weight of around 440 Da and has a bitter taste. Celastrol is soluble in organic solvents such as ethanol, but is sparingly soluble in water.
The compound has a high melting point of around 300°C and a boiling point of around 430°C. Celastrol exhibits anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-tumor activities and has been the subject of numerous studies for its potential therapeutic applications. However, it is toxic when ingested in large amounts and can cause symptoms such as gastrointestinal upset, tremors, and seizures.
I can see how people were attracted to the plant since its colors can really be striking. Unfortunately, good looks have proven to be the road to invasive species hell. Damn humans.
IMAGE CREDIT: Scientific Inquirer.