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Finally, something good from bittersweet: Making a lamp from a vine-strangled sapling

By Steve Fagin

Publication: theday.com

Published 05/04/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 05/03/2013 11:25 PM

A silent but deadly killer lurks in the woods.

Anybody who spends time outdoors has seen Oriental bittersweet's anaconda-like vines coiled around trees, eventually choking them to death and dragging their carcasses to the ground. It's like a slow-motion horror movie.

Introduced to the United States as an ornamental plant some 150 years ago – in the fall it produces yellow, orange and red berries people evidently considered attractive – bittersweet is one of the most aggressive and destructive invasive plants in the East.

Over the years I've waged a ferocious battle with the vine and have managed to keep it from overtaking my domain – but I'm probably doomed. I know if I stopped hacking away at the tough, woody plant for one season the war would be lost.

I certainly could improve my chances of victory if I resorted to such herbicides as triclopyr, but the application of chemicals violates my own Geneva code, and so I employ such traditional weapons as lopping shears, a bow saw, ax and mattock.

I'm especially vigilant around the countless evergreens I've planted from seedlings.

Bittersweet is extraordinarily sneaky, and will send a barely visible tendril up a tender sapling. By the time you spot it and rip it out, the damage, sometimes fatal, has been done.

Birds spread bittersweet seeds, which are just now beginning to germinate. The plants also spread also through root suckering. I've ripped up root systems more than 20 feet long. Above the ground the vines can grow 4 inches thick and climb 100 feet and more to the crowns of mature trees, where their weight helps pull everything down in a tangled mess.

The roots also are unbelievably strong. I've swung from them like Tarzan, and had them snag trees I've tried to cut for firewood.

In fact, even after I cut off its roots one stubborn bittersweet vine continues to cling to a thick oak log suspended 15 in the air. This widowmaker has for years dangled like the Sword of Damocles directly over a trail that I often walk. Blizzards, hurricanes and windstorms haven't loosened the dead bittersweet's grip.

Some time ago I encountered a bittersweet vine that throttled a young maple tree, creating a swirling, indented pattern into the bark and cambium. I cut the sapling trunk, measuring about 6 feet long and 4 inches thick, and leaned it against a neighboring tree.

Then I forgot about it.

But earlier this spring while traipsing through the woods I tripped over that section of perfectly seasoned trunk, and had an inspiration: It would make the perfect floor lamp.

Loyal readers and viewers of a video on theday.com may recall a few weeks ago the oversized chairs I fabricated from tree stumps using a chain saw, chisel, angle grinder equipped with a saw-like disc and palm sander.

Using these same tools I removed the bark from the twisted maple, then drilled a hole for a wire, and also cut a 4-inch-thick, 18-inch wide disc of maple for a base.

After lag screwing the trunk to the base I ran a wire through it, installed a switch, plug and socket for a bulb. I also bought an old torchiere glass shade at a thrift store, as well as some spar varnish.

A few hours of sanding, drilling and wiring, and voila – a unique and rather attractive lamp, if I say so myself.

Now I'm on a mission: scrounge up more twisted branches and trunks. In just over an hour the other day I found half a dozen others, and I'm letting them season in the woodshed before converting them to lamps.

Having played around with stained glass a year ago and buying a few tools, I'm also designing a more elegant shade for the next lamp.

Don't get me wrong; I still loathe bittersweet and will never hesitate to cut it down. But I'm pleased to have found a use for the vine's victims, other than simply to burn them in my woodstove.

Now, if I could only devise similarly redeeming applications for poison ivy, green briar and knotweed …

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