Known for its orange-red berries which appear in the fall, American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) is a perennial woody vine. Its dark green, ovate leaves grow up to 2 inches long and turn yellowish green in the fall. Its small, greenish, 4-petaled flowers bloom in May and June.
Flowers from male bittersweet plants produce pollen, which pollinates the flowers on the female plants. In the fall, orange capsules replace the female flowers, which split open to reveal clusters of pea-sized fruit at the ends of the branches.
Bittersweet forms thickets which spread as root suckers develop along the ground. This vine grows vigorously, and can grow up to 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Bittersweet tends to climb trees and shrubs; if bittersweet grows near your garden, you can prevent it from climbing other plants by providing a trellis or fence.
An aggressive, invasive bittersweet species, known as Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) can grow 60 feet in one season. This ornamental bittersweet has escaped cultivation and is crowding out American bittersweet in some areas of the United States. It can grow from any piece of root or stem, and can usually be removed only by herbicide application. Unlike American bittersweet, Asiatic bittersweet bears flowers and fruit at the base of each leaf.
American bittersweet is native to North America, where it grows naturally in woodlands and along fences and roadsides. It grows in a wide geographical area, from eastern Canada south to the Ozarks and west to New Mexico. It prefers well-drained, moist to dry soil with a pH level between 6.8 and 7.2. For optimal fruit production, bittersweet requires full sun exposure.
Propagate bittersweet by seed, cuttings, layers, or suckers. Sow seeds in the fall or spring. If you plan to grow bittersweet in your garden, select an area away from other plants, or grow your bittersweet in a nursery pot.
Bittersweet berries attract birds, which do not appear to be affected by the plant’s poisonous reputation. Landscapers and homeowners grow bittersweet as an ornamental vine, and dried branches with berries make an attractive fall addition to flower arrangements.
All parts of the bittersweet plant, including the seeds, are poisonous. Toxicity symptoms include digestive upset and loss of consciousness.
Although American bittersweet grows rapidly and vigorously, it can grow in harmony with other plants and provide food for birds. Learn to distinguish native from invasive bittersweet, and you will enjoy this vine’s annual colorful display.
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center: American Bittersweet http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=CESC (accessed November 3, 2010).
University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension: Bittersweet; http://www.arhomeandgarden.org/plantoftheweek/articles/bittersweet_12-2-05.htm (accessed November 3, 2010).
University of Illinois Extension: American Bittersweet; http://web.extension.illinois.edu/macon/palette/091108.html (accessed November 3, 2010).