Drawing a plant’s behavior

I just finished this preliminary drawing of Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), part of a series of illustrations about invasive species. While wandering through the forest at Huyck Preserve early this summer, I photographed this aggressive vine and made some rough sketches to try to capture its menacing behavior. It climbs quickly, taking over everything in its path, smothering and strangling large trees until the weight of bittersweet foliage breaks their limbs and leaves them vulnerable to disease and harsh weather. I was saddened to see so much uncontrollable destruction. I also felt overwhelmed about how I was going to translate this tangled mess into a clear and attractive illustration.

Smothering behavior of Oriental bittersweet.
Smothering behavior of Oriental bittersweet. Text will be added to the white space later on to explain why this plant is a problem.
Oriental bittersweet vines. Notice berry clusters are attached at the base of each leaf. This is one way to ID this invasive plant.
Oriental bittersweet vines. Notice berry clusters are attached at the base of each leaf. This is one way to ID this invasive plant.

Look familiar? Oriental bittersweet grows everywhere! It’s climbing the trees on my street, the rose bushes next door, and the fences at the UAlbany tennis courts. I see it from city parks to nearby forests. It’s a monster! Many people collect the vines in fall/winter to make wreaths that show off the beautiful red berries. Its cultivation as an ornamental plant has allowed it to spread so extensively.

A second drawing (in progress) will show a close-up of the vine and how it changes through the seasons. There are several characteristics that differentiate this invasive bittersweet from the native American bittersweet, including the position of the berries on the vine and the color of the berries’ husks. These will be presented in that illustration. Stay tuned…I’ll post that one when it’s finished.

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