Growing up, there was bittersweet growing wild near my house. My siblings and I loved to hike through the wild tree stand along the edges of a railroad line, the “weeds” as we called them, to find and collect beautiful clusters of orange fruits for fall decorations.
A wild, unfinished location is a good place for bittersweet. It’s a fast-growing vine, twining and climbing over shrubs and up nearby trees. It can kill plants by wrapping its vines tight around their stems or trunks, eventually resulting in death by girdling. It’s a poor choice for a finished area of your landscape, but it does make sense for a back fence, rock pile, old windmill or declining tree where it can scramble. Or for a smaller in-town landscape, it could be planted in a whiskey barrel or other container to control its growth.
Easy to Grow
American bittersweet, Celastrus scandens, is native to north America from Canada to South Dakota and New Mexico. It’s a woody perennial vine or vine-like shrub with lustrous dark green alternate leaves, turning greenish-yellow to yellow in fall. Plants produce non-showy greenish-white flowers, which are easily overlooked by gardeners, in May and June.
It is very easy to grow, thriving in any soil type including dry locations and high pH soil. Another way to slow down its aggressive nature is to purposefully plant it in a location with very poor soil; it will quickly outgrow its bounds in an area with good soil. It blooms and fruits best when grown in full sun.
Plant height is often listed as 20 feet, but it will continue to grow if it has something to grow upon. Plants are hardy to Zone 3.
Bittersweet plants are usually dioecious; meaning plants have either all male flowers or all female flowers. Only the female plants produce berries, but pollen from the male vine’s flowers are needed for berry-set. However, you don’t need a 1:1 ratio of males and females; a single male plant can pollinate several female plants.
The difficulty, until recently, has been the horticulture industry has not identified male and female plant lines or made them available for sale. So if you buy unnamed bittersweet seedlings at a garden center or online, you don’t know if you are getting female or male plants.
However, in 2009 Bailey Nursery introduced ‘Autumn Revolution’ a unique bittersweet with “perfect” flowers – a term used in the horticulture industry referring to flowers combining both male and female structures. This means gardeners can buy one plant and eventually have the beautiful fruit clusters they are looking for, avoiding the whole headache of male and female plants. Autumn Revolution also has larger than normal berries. Michael Dirr, author of The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, describes them as marble-sized and the fruit clusters like a “cluster of grapes”.
Bailey Nursery is a commercial wholesale plant grower and they do not sell directly to the general public. To find a retail garden center near you carrying Bailey
Bailey Nursery is a commercial wholesale plant grower and they do not sell directly to the general public. To find a retail garden center near you carrying Bailey Nursery products, visit www.baileynurseries.com/find-a-retailer/ .
Don’t Plant Oriental Bittersweet
When purchasing bittersweet, make sure you know what species you are buying! A related species, oriental bittersweet, C. orbiculatus, is considered a priority species by the Nebraska Invasive Species Program, neinvasives.com. This means it is a top priority for eradication of new or existing populations so it does not become a noxious weed as it is considered many other states.
The term “noxious” doesn’t just mean the weed is common, difficult to control or non-native. In Nebraska, noxious weeds are officially designated by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture (NDA) because they pose a serious problem to the production of crops and livestock, to the welfare of state residents and may devalue land or reduce tax revenue.
Landowners with noxious weeds on their property will be ordered by their local weed control authority to remove them and if they don’t comply the plants will be removed at their expense. So don’t make the mistake of planting the wrong bittersweet.
Invasive non-native plants, like oriental bittersweet, also crowd out favorable native plants, degrading habitat for wildlife and insects.
American bittersweet and oriental bittersweet can be identified by their fruit clusters. American bittersweet clusters are fewer in number but larger, often 2-4 inches in length, developing at the tip of each vine. Oriental bittersweet produces more fruit clusters, but they are smaller and develop at the junction where a leaf attaches to the main stem. Thus each Oriental bittersweet vine may have several small fruit clusters scattered along the end of each vine.
All images are of Autumn Revolution bittersweet from Bailey Nursery, www.baileynurseries.com.