This well-behaved, deciduous vine blooms around May or June with white, yellow-centered flowers followed by strikingly beautiful, orange-red berries on woody vines that twine around supports. It produces the most fruit when sited in full sun and thrives in moist, well-drained soils, although it adapts to nearly any other soil and tolerates part sun, occasional flooding, and drier conditions. It grows at a fast rate up to 20 feet long, spreading over rocks and shrubs or twisting around large structures. In the home landscape, American bittersweet can be used to cover trellises, arbors, fences, walls, or unsightly features. Only large, established shrubs or trees should be used as support. When used as a groundcover, the vine can hide rock piles, tree stumps, or felled trees, providing critical habitat and cover for wildlife. It spreads by root suckers that form colonies or by birds distributing the seeds. Female plants need a male plant nearby to produce fruits.
The showy berries soften over the winter and provide food for birds and small mammals. Although poisonous when eaten by humans, the berries are highly coveted for use in flower arrangements, which has resulted in American bittersweet’s decline in population. Furthermore, non-native Oriental bittersweet has aggressively displaced and hybridized with the native plant, and American bittersweet is on endangered lists in numerous states. The two vines look similar and can be distinguished by the location of the flowers and nuances of the berries--American bittersweet produces flowers only at the ends of the vines, whereas Oriental bittersweet produces flowers all along the stems; and American bittersweet’s fruits tend to be bigger and orangish red, while the non-native's fruits are yellowish orange and arranged along the stem.
Celastrus scandens is the only one of its genus that is native to North America. Scandens means “climbing,” and “bittersweet” comes from Colonial times when the red fruits were compared to the nightshades, whose fruit tasted “bitter and then sweet.” It’s related to other native plants in the Celastraceae, including eastern wahoo, strawberry bush, running strawberry bush, and wintercreeper. It’s also related to the non-native invasive known as burning bush.
Native habitats include woodland or glade edges, and the vine is found clambering up rocky slopes or trees and across thickets or low bushes. Prune in late winter or early spring to control height, and remove low-hanging berries from within reach of children or pets. The legs tend to be bare, so front-facing low perennials are useful for balance and added interest.
Grows to 20’ tall.
Performs best in full sun, but tolerates part shade.
Prefers moist, sandy, well-drained soils, but adapts to clay and other soils.
Small, greenish-white to yellow flowers are in clusters: males are about 2” long and females are 1 to 1-1/2” long, both with 5 petals and stamens (females have false stamens). Hanging clusters of 6-20 globe-shaped fruits up to 4” long appear July-October. In late October or early November, the now-brown fruit capsules split into 3 sections covered with fleshy red berries that have 1-2 round seeds per section.
Alternate, ovate to oval leaves are 2-4” long with pointed tips and finely serrated margins; the two sides of the leaf tend to fold inward. Upper surface is dark yellowish green, while lower surface is paler.
Stems are green, gray, or brown, and tendrils are absent. Bark is smooth and light brown; older bark peels into thin flakes.
Host plant to 8 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including the ailanthus silk, saddleback caterpillar, zigzag herpetogramma, and variable antepione moths (pictured in this order). One specialist moth species, Zelleria celastrusella, relies exclusively on bittersweet as a host plant. Wild turkeys, ruffed grouses, northern bobwhites, eastern cottontails, and fox squirrels are among the various birds and mammals that feast on the berries in late winter, after repeated freeze-and-thaw cycles have softened them and converted their sugars. Native bees, ants, wasps, and beetles visit for pollen and nectar.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans and early settlers utilized the berries to calm disturbed people, induce vomiting, treat venereal diseases, and increase urine flow. The bark has been used as a diuretic and as a folk remedy for skin problems, including burns and tumors.
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