THE BITTERSWEET TREE

APPEARANCE - TERRITORY - USAGES - REPRODUCTION - MYTH/LORE

The Bittersweet is a tall, slender, rapidly-growing fruit tree found in forests throughout Southern Sarvonia. It prefers mild to warm climates, and can tolerate very moist conditions. It tends to do best in forest clearings, or around the edges of a forest, where it receives the protection of the other trees, but has space and light to grow. The most remarkable thing about this tree is its buttress roots, which can reach up to 4 peds high, and stretch seven peds outwards, snaking gracefully across the forest floor before disappearing underground.

Appearance. Reaching a height of between thirty and thirty-five peds when fully grown, the Bittersweet is one of the more imposing trees of the Sarvonian continent. Preferring the mild or warm climates of the Southern regions, it is vary rarely seen North of the border, and only then in a much-stunted form which produces small, tasteless fruits, if any.

When young, the bark is a pale brown colour and looks smooth, but is actually quite rough to the touch. This is due to the tiny ripples which encircle the trunk, which in time will rupture and become the cracks which are one of the distinguishing characteristics of this tree. The lower portion of the slender trunk is branchless; the graceful limbs usually appear at around half way up. The main limbs grow outwards, away from the trunk, and split into several smaller branches, each bearing several opposing pairs of dull brown leaves, which on the young tree are between four and seven nailsbreadths long, and about three wide. They are attached to the branch by a very short stem, hardly visible to a quick glance.

The tree grows rapidly during its early years, reaching a height of perhaps twenty-five peds by the time it is thirty years old. During this time the bark will have darkened to a deep rust colour, from which Santharian artists take their hue name of 'bittersweet orange', and will become heavily pitted with cracks which run around the trunk instead of vertically like other trees.

Likewise, by this time the leaves will also have begun to change in colour and size, being now a reddish-purple and stretching to around two and a half palmspans in length by one and a half wide, with a rounded base and slightly less rounded tip. They are also very strong and stiff, with a reinforcing rib running down the centre, and a faintly 'waxy' gloss to the surface. This is also the time when the tree is mature enough to produce its rather plain summer flowers, and the delicious fruit which gives it its name.

At the point where each leaf joins the branch, a simple, four-petalled flower of dull purple opens. Each bloom is approximately two
nailsbreadths across and produces very little scent. They do, however, successfully attract the attentions of the local insect population, particularly the malise who build their hives in the tree, and are the main pollinators of this species.

Each tree carries both male and female flowers, and both appear identical to the eye, however, closer inspection will reveal a slight grey tinge to the base of the petals of the female. Once a flower has been pollinated it takes only a matter of hours for the flower to drop its petals. After a few days a small, shiny grey berry begins to develop, which in around four to six weeks will be the size and shape of a taenish egg. The edible but bitter-tasting, tough peel of the Bittersweet fruit conceals a most delightful, honey-sweet flesh of the most intense karikrimson imaginable. Hidden in a hollow in the center of the fruit are numerous small, purple seeds.

By now, the buttress roots of the tree will also be in evidence, but are nowhere near as imposing as they will become over the next few years. Instead of growing from the trunk outwards, they appear to have fully formed underground, and the tree seems to be dragging them up from below as it grows, tearing wide gouges in the earth as they force their way skywards. The roots also have the unmistakable ridges seen on the trunk running around them. When fully formed, the root structure spread around the tree resembles huge curtains of wood, with folds and creases running from top to bottom. At the base of the trunk, the roots form many nooks and crannies which offer themselves as ideal homes for the likes of the red fox, herins, wild pigs, rats, mice or even the occasional wolf.

Over the next twenty or so years, the tree's growth rate slows down until it comes to a stop at around thirty to thirty-five peds. From now until it dies at about 250 years of age, it puts all its energies into drawing water from the wide area of ground covered by its root system. At this age, the lower branches of the tree will have reached a spread of up to twenty peds, and the weight of the leaves and fruit, combined with the wood's inherent weakness due to its rapid growth, will have them bending almost parallel with the trunk, oftentimes with their extremities brushing the tops of the huge buttresses below.

Many Bittersweet Trees don't survive to full maturity; being so tall and thin, and having such fragile timber at their heart, any strong wind sets them swaying dramatically and even the massive root system cannot stop them from falling over or, more commonly, breaking off above the buttresses, which are sometimes up to five to seven peds high. The roughly conical, hollow 'shells' of the stumps thus formed are characteristic of the Bittersweet forest ecology, and form yet more dwelling places for flora and fauna alike.
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Territory. Preferring the warmer climate of Southern Sarvonia, the Bittersweet Tree is found in almost all forested areas across that continent, from the Thaelon in the North and the Vontron in the West, to the Zeiphyrian, the Auturian and the Sharadon in the South. It is particularly prevalent in the Goltherlon, where the combination of mineral-rich volcanic soil from Mt Heckra to the North, and cool, early morning mists blowing in from the Ancythrian Sea in the East help to nourish the developing trees constantly. There are also numerous clearings in the Goltherlon, surrounding abandoned and overgrown villages left behind by the Goltherrhim elves who made their homes here many years ago, some of which have been taken over by the Golgnomes who call this forest their home. These clearings provide excellent growing situations for the Bittersweet, as the suspicious, wealthy Golgnomes who now reside in the old tree-homes of the elves employ alchemists to ensure the surrounding area remains clear of vegetation, so as to see any approaching intruders. This suits the Bittersweet, as it now has a constant supply of open air and new growing room. As soon as a tree around the edge of the clearing falls, a new Bittersweet will begin to take its place immediately.

Many fine examples of the Bittersweet can also be found in the Brownie Vale. Indeed, it appears that wherever large groups of this tree occur, Brownies will not be far away.
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Usages. The rapid growth rate of the Bittersweet gives the tree every opportunity to mature successfully in a very competitive situation. However, the problem with this is the fact that the heartwood becomes very weak and brittle. Not only is this bad for the tree, but it also makes the timber virtually useless for anything other than firewood, and even then, it burns so rapidly that a whole tree can be chopped and burned in a matter of a couple of days.

The really positive thing to come from the wood is the fact that when it is burned, it releases a sweet-smelling smoke which is almost invisible. It will quickly fill a room with the smell of warm honey which seems to infuse itself into clothes and furniture, and lasts for a couple of days. An unexpected bonus is that the smell seems to calm restless children, helping them to drift off to sleep. These two things alone make the wood of the Bittersweet a favourite with women all over the South. In many areas it is used simply as incense, small sticks being thrown onto the fire from time to time, or a splinter of kindling stood on end in a specially crafted bowl is set to smoulder in a bedroom. Some like to scent their clothing deliberately with it, so that in some areas dwellings are built with an extra-wide chimney area over the hearth where skirts and such can be hung on Bittersweet-burning days. Humans, hobbits, and Brownies are fondest of this scent, while dwarves and elves both seem to be indifferent or actively dislike the smoky overtones.

While the wood of the main tree is of no practical use in any form of manufacture, the timber from the buttress roots is a different matter. Having spent so many years holding up the tall tree, the rootwood has become very compressed and hard. It is also of a different colour to the heartwood, being deep red with purple markings. These attributes have made it very desirable amongst the craftsmen carvers of Caelereth who have created many exquisite examples of their art from this wood. When polished with the wax found inside a malise hive, the wood seems to "come alive", glowing with a warm reddish hue, and reflecting light from every surface.

The honey-sweet fruit is plentiful and cheap enough to be enjoyed by everyone, and as the tough rind encasing the soft flesh keeps the fruit fresh for several weeks after picking, it is possible to transport it over great distances with no ill effects. It is delicious eaten on its own, but has also become a favourite amongst chefs as an ingredient in some wonderful desserts which grace the tables of some of the wealthiest houses.

The bitter taste of the peel has been found to "awaken" the mouth, and is sometimes used as a between-courses nibble in expensive eateries, removing the taste of the previous course in readiness for the next. It is also used in some alcoholic drinks to add a freshness to them. At least one brewer in the Voldar region has experimented with a medicinally-beneficial 'digestif' which incorporates the fermented fruit of the Bittersweet, its peel, and various herbal inclusions. It is known as 'Bron's Bitters' in the area, and can be bought from most apothecaries or herbwives.


The shell of the small, purple seeds shares the bitterness of the peel, but strangely the pith is of a similar sweetness to the flesh, creating a very unusual sensation when biting into one. The powder which is obtained by drying and grating the seeds has become known throughout Caelereth as "Bitternut", a spice which can be used in a variety of dishes, but is especially good with fish.

The main providers of the seeds used in manufacturing Bitternut are the Aohu'o Brownies of the Goltherlon Forest, who harvest them by climbing the trees using the ridges in the bark like a miniature ladder, whilst the younger children help their mothers collect any which have fallen to the ground. This has led to the more adventurous Brownies creating a rather inventive, and somewhat dangerous, method of descent from the high branches.

Selecting a leaf of a size suitable for sitting on, the leaf-rider (or "rraoohee rrLL" in Browniin), begins to bounce up and down on the leaf until the small stem attaching it to the branch snaps, and the leaf will then, due to its flat nature and inherent stiffness, begin to float groundwards at a smooth angle. Gripping the edges of the leaf and leaning either left or right, the rider can exert a small influence over the direction of travel, but generally the feeling seems to be that "you land where you land". Selecting a leaf which is facing in roughly the right direction is, therefore, a big part of a successful descent, as is picking the right moment to begin the journey. Any slight breeze can blow the leaf and rider far off-course, resulting in a long walk home for the unfortunate Brownie, and the playful derision of his friends.

Of late, it has been noted that the game (for such has it become known) has taken a rather more dangerous turn than usual. Not content with sitting on the leaf, some of the braver youngsters wishing to earn extra bragging points amongst their friends, have taken to standing upright, facing sideways with one foot near the front of the leaf and t'other near the back. By leaning backwards or forwards, they are able to control their direction with much more accuracy then the seated riders, but are more liable to being blown off course (or off the leaf!) by the wind.

The parents of the "aooohee rrLL" (lit. "leaf-riding") Brownies always make a show of chastising them for their antics, but secretly they all know as well as the youngsters who has flown the furthest, or flown from the highest branch, and a sense of pride seems to be gained from being the parent of one of the "record holders".

Whilst on the subject of the leaves, it would be remiss if it were not mentioned that they can be dried and crushed and sprinkled into stews or soups, where their peppery taste helps the flavour of the meal greatly. However, the unfortunate effect of causing the body to produce vast amounts of excess gas, which announces its presence explosively as well as aromatically, means that it is used quite sparingly in polite society, or at the very most as a prescribed carminative rather than a spice.

Information to the traveller: The massive buttress roots of the Bittersweet Tree make an ideal overnight resting place, or as shelter from inclement weather, having many nooks and crannies near their base large enough to curl up in. Be warned, however, that as mentioned previously, these recesses are equally attractive to the local wildlife, and you would be advised to check for any signs of occupation before settling yourself in.

Some rangers have had great success with improvising semi-permanent shelters from the dead 'shell' stumps, merely taking a waxed canvas and stretching it over the open top of the cone, then filling the empty base - as necessary - with dried leaves as padding. A second canvas laid atop the leaves forms a 'floor', and at least one bedroll can be fit inside the hollow. Other travellers report that smaller cones, from trees which have snapped at a younger age, make excellent hearths, with the empty trunk funneling the smoke up and away from faces.
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Reproduction. In late spring and early summer, small purple flowers, no bigger than two nailsbreadths across, begin to open wherever a leaf attaches to a branch. They are of no consequence to humans, but insects, particularly malise, find them irresistible and spend every waking hour buzzing from bloom to bloom collecting the pollen within. This is then transported to their hives which they build within the branches of the Bittersweet.

There are two main ways in which a Bittersweet flower can be pollinated. The first, and most common, is by the malise who nest within the branches of the tree. The second is by the tree producing so much pollen that there are large clouds blown around by the slightest breeze, and as the trees grow so close together, it is inevitable that some will find its way onto another tree's flowers. A pollinated flower will wilt and drop its petals within a few short hours, leaving behind a small, grey berry attached to a short, slim stalk. Over the next few weeks, the berry will swell until it is the same size and shape as a taenish egg, when its grey peel will take on a hard, shiny appearance which indicates that the flesh within is at its ripest and sweetest.

The fruit is now almost too heavy for the slim stem attaching it to the tree, and the slightest buffet of wind, or nudge from an inquisitive kuatu is enough to detach it from its anchor and send it hurtling to the ground. As strong as the skin of the fruit looks, it is no match for the ground after such a lengthy fall, and will burst open on impact, spraying soft, bright karikrimson flesh and small, purple seeds in all directions. This is not a good time to be taking a nap under a Bittersweet Tree!

Lying in the shadow of the mighty parent trees' giant roots, the seeds would seem to have little chance of survival - however, they have a rather clever trick up their collective sleeve. They are able to lie dormant, buried just below the surface for many years, waiting for the moment when the old tree finally falls and the warming sunlight once again reaches the forest floor. As soon as this happens, they send out tiny roots, seeking moisture, and the race for the canopy above begins!
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Myth/Lore. Southern hobbits play a simple game when eating the fruit, seeing who can spit or squirt the small seeds farthest, or nearest to a target. The belief is that the winners will have 'healthy blood' and be able to ward off minor illnesses such as ague in the coming season.

Among some peasant farmers, the leaves are thought to have repellent powers, for insects and inimical spirits alike. To that end, the dried, crushed leaves are strewn liberally between the rows of their crops, and large bunches are hung above doorways, lending their peppery scent to the home.

Parents of the Aohu'o rraoohee rrLL's, in a half-hearted attempt to dissuade them from their antics, tell the tale of the young Brownie who, wanting to be braver than his friends, climbed to a higher branch than anyone had ever been. Having chosen his leaf and seated himself comfortably, he began the bouncing which would send him soaring gracefully, as he thought, further than anyone had ever gone before. Little did he suspect just how far this trip would take him. The stem snapped and he began his journey earthwards, waving at his friends below, thinking of the glory this trip would bring. Then, without warning, a heavy gust of wind took hold of the leaf from beneath, and lifted him higher and higher, until he was looking down on the very tops of the trees, and his friends had become tiny specks, like grains of sand. He was last seen gliding eastwards, towards the
Ancythrian Sea, waving frantically to those below whilst trying to hold on to the edges of the leaf, which was by now being carried at great speed into the distance. That was the last anyone ever saw of the Brownie who wanted to be best.
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 Date of last edit 21st Rising Sun 1668 a.S.

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