- Growing Bittersweet
- Two Common Types
- Planting & Growing Bittersweet
- Removing Invasive Plants
- Celastrus scandens
- American Bittersweet Vine: Tips For Growing Bittersweet Plants
- What is American Bittersweet Vine?
- Growing Bittersweet Vines
- American Bittersweet Plant Care
- Invasive in the Spotlight: Oriental Bittersweet
- Bittersweet nightshade identification and control
- Legal status in King County, Washington
- Identification (see below for additional photos)
- Habitat and impact
- Growth and reproduction
- Additional information on bittersweet nightshade
- What to do if you find this plant in King County, Washington
- Poisonous Berries
Bittersweet is an easy-to-grow vine famous for revealing a striking display of seedpods and berries each fall. Often used in wreaths or decorative displays, this ornamental vine adds value and interest to the garden all year long. Here is everything you need to know to grow this hardy American native.
Two Common Types
American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) is a deciduous, perennial vine native to North America. Often found growing over fences or climbing up trees, their typical habitat includes rocky upland woodlands, savannas, thickets, and along shady riverbanks of the central and eastern U.S. American bittersweet has smooth, 2 to 4 inch long green leaves. The vines produce tiny greenish-white flowers in June and in early fall, orange-yellow seed husks peel back to reveal scarlet-colored fruit.
Bittersweet fruits are not safe for human consumption, but when left on the vine, they provide a much appreciated source of late winter food for many birds and small animals.
Unlike its American counterpart, Chinese (Oriental) bittersweet ( Celastrus orbiculatus), is considered an invasive plant in most areas. It can easily climb to heights of 40 ft or more in its quest to strangle nearby trees. Like American bittersweet, Chinese bittersweet is often used for fall decorating. The two would be easily confused if were not for the fact that the young twining shoots of Chinese bittersweet come equipped with a pair of soft thorns and its seed casings are yellow instead of orange.
The biggest difference between the two, however, may be their environmental impact. Whereas America bittersweet has become so rare in areas that it’s now protected from being harvested in the wild, Chinese bittersweet has made the invasive species list in the course of its ruthless spread from New York to North Carolina and west into Illinois.
Planting & Growing Bittersweet
Fall is a good time to plant bittersweet. If mulched and protected over winter during its first year, bittersweet will remain maintenance free for most of its long life. To get the vine to produce brightly colored berries, you will need to plant both sexes of the vine within close proximity of one another. When purchasing plants from a nursery, be sure the sex of the vines are properly identified. The female vines produce the berries, but the sexes are impossible to tell apart until the plants are mature. One male plant will easily produce enough pollen for 6 to 8 female plants (bees are the main pollinators).
Bittersweet can be bought from a nursery or propagated from seeds or cuttings. Seeds sown in the spring need to be placed in containers of moist sand or peat and kept in the refrigerator (34 to 41 degrees F) for 3 months to break dormancy.
Bittersweet vines grow well in both full sun and shade, although full sun is critical for fruit production. These vines are not particularly fussy about soil quality and pests seldom bother them. Because of their climbing habit, bittersweet needs a sturdy support-either an upright trellis or a lateral fence. Do not let it climb up a tree, however, because the twining nature of these vines will easily girdle the trunk. Occasional light pruning will keep plants tidy and help reign in their size. Pruning can be done in late winter or early spring.
Bittersweet is ready to harvest when you see the first orange capsules of the fruit split open to reveal the orange-red fruit inside. Cut stems to then length you desire and tie them into small bundles. Hang the bundles to dry in a warm, dark room. As the fruit dries, more unopened capsules will split open to reveal the fruits inside. Once dried, the vines make an attractive botanical display that will last for several years.
Removing Invasive Plants
Cutting back invasive bittersweet plants can stimulate the growth of new stems and root suckers. To kill a mature plant, cut back all top growth, and dig out the stump, making sure you get all remaining pieces of the roots. If necessary, repeat this procedure again in the late summer if new shoots spring up from the old roots.
Bittersweet readily self-sows, so when left unchecked, plants can soon be seen popping up everywhere. If you see plants sprouting where you don’t want them, pull them out or relocate them to another part of the garden.
The seeds of more invasive Chinese bittersweet are spread by birds and animals and can remain viable for several years. Pulling parent plants out before they go to seed will assist greatly in eliminating the growth of future plants.
The dried fruit of the Bittersweet vine is extremely popular for autumn decorating. The clusters of pea-sized fruit split open in autumn to reveal red seeds inside orange husks. We sell stems of dried bittersweet fruit at this time of year in the shop but, the fact is, you can easily grow your own.
Bittersweet is a large scale rambling & climbing woody vine. It needs a large structural support to climb on. Given that, and at least five hours of sun each day, it will produce an abundance of beautiful orange/red fruit for you each autumn that can be dried for seasonal decorating.
Bittersweet is a dioecious plant, meaning that male and female flowers are borne on separate plants and one of each is needed in order to produce fruit. In the past this meant knowing the sex of the plants to make sure that both a male and female were planted together for cross pollination. Since differentiating Celastrus flowers is difficult and requires expertise many gardeners were disappointed to discover that their Bittersweet vines never produced the decorative fruit for which they were planted.
Now, with the introduction of ‘Autumn Revolution’ the guesswork has been taken out of growing bittersweet for ornamental fruit. This selection blooms with “perfect” flowers, meaning that both the male & female parts are present in the same flower. Voilà! An abundance of beautiful fruit on EVERY plant. Not only does this plant set an abundance of fruit but the fruit is also significantly larger than that of previous selections. All around, a fantastic plant.
Note: There are several types of Bittersweet; Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is an invasive species and illegal to plant in many states. American bittersweet (C. scandens) is a desirable native species and is the species from which ‘Autumn Revolution’ is derived.
- Attributes: Genus: Celastrus Species: scandens Family: Celastraceae Life Cycle: Perennial Woody Country Or Region Of Origin: Central & E. Canada to N. & E. & Central U.S.A Wildlife Value: Birds, Wildlife Climbing Method: Twining Edibility: Poison
- Whole Plant Traits: Plant Type: Native Plant Poisonous Vine Leaf Characteristics: Deciduous Habit/Form: Climbing Growth Rate: Rapid Maintenance: Low Texture: Medium
- Cultural Conditions: Light: Dappled Sunlight (Shade through upper canopy all day) Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day) Soil Texture: Clay High Organic Matter Loam (Silt) Soil Drainage: Good Drainage NC Region: Mountains Piedmont Usda Plant Hardiness Zone: 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
- Fruit: Fruit Color: Gold/Yellow Insignificant Orange Fruit Value To Gardener: Showy Display/Harvest Time: Fall Winter Fruit Type: Capsule Fruit Description: fruit dry with a yellow-orange wall, splitting and exposing red seeds
- Flowers: Flower Color: Green Orange White Flower Value To Gardener: Good Dried Showy Flower Description: flowers in elongated clusters, Terminal cluster of small, greenish-white flowers on new growth; red seeds inside orange capsules that persist through the winter; flowers on new growth; best fruiting in sun; cut stems, dry well
- Leaves: Leaf Characteristics: Deciduous Leaf Color: Gold/Yellow Green Deciduous Leaf Fall Color: Gold/Yellow Leaf Type: Simple Leaf Arrangement: Alternate Hairs Present: No Leaf Description: Woody vine with alternate, simple, deciduous leaves with smooth margins
- Stem: Stem Is Aromatic: No
- Landscape: Landscape Location: Naturalized Area Rock Wall Vertical Spaces Landscape Theme: Butterfly Garden Pollinator Garden Design Feature: Hedge Screen/Privacy Attracts: Bees Butterflies Pollinators Songbirds Problems: Poisonous to Humans
- Poisonous to Humans: Poison Severity: Low Poison Symptoms: vomiting, diarrhea, loss of consciousness Poison Toxic Principle: Unknown, possibly peptide, glycosides, and alkaloids. Causes Contact Dermatitis: No Poison Part: Bark Flowers Fruits Leaves Roots Sap/Juice Seeds Stems
American Bittersweet Vine: Tips For Growing Bittersweet Plants
Bittersweet vines are North American native plants that thrive throughout most of the United States. In the wild, you can find it growing on the edges of glades, on rocky slopes, in woodland areas and in thickets. It often winds itself around trees and covers low-growing shrubs. In the home landscape, you can try growing bittersweet along a fence or other support structure.
What is American Bittersweet Vine?
American bittersweet is a vigorous deciduous, perennial vine that grows 15 to 20 feet (4.5 to 6 m.) tall. It is native to central and eastern North America. They produce yellowish-green flowers that bloom in spring, but the flowers are plain and uninteresting compared to the berries that follow. As the flowers fade, orange-yellow capsules appear.
In late fall and winter, the capsules open at the ends to display the bright red berries inside. The berries remain on the plant well into winter, brightening winter landscapes and attracting birds and other wildlife. The berries are poisonous to humans if eaten, however, so practice caution when planting around homes with small children.
Growing Bittersweet Vines
In very cold climates, make sure you plant American bittersweet vine (Celastrus scandens) rather than Chinese bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). American bittersweet vine is hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 3b through 8, while Chinese bittersweet suffers frost damage and may die to the ground in USDA zones 3 and 4. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.
When growing bittersweet for the attractive berries, you’ll need both a male and female plant. The female plants produce the berries, but only if there is a male plant nearby to fertilize the flowers.
American bittersweet vine grows quickly, covering trellises, arbors, fences and walls. Use it to cover unsightly features in the home landscape. When used as a ground cover, it will hide rock piles and tree stumps. The vine will climb trees readily, but limit the tree climbing activity to mature trees only. The vigorous vines can damage young trees.
American Bittersweet Plant Care
American bittersweet thrives in sunny locations and in almost any soil. Water these bittersweet vines by soaking the surrounding soil during dry spells.
Bittersweet vine doesn’t usually need fertilization, but if it appears to get off to a slow start, it may benefit from a small dose of general purpose fertilizer. Vines that receive too much fertilizer don’t flower or fruit well.
Prune the vines in late winter or early spring to remove dead shoots and control excess growth.
Note: American bittersweet and other bittersweet varieties are known to be aggressive growers and are, in many areas, considered noxious weeds. Make sure to check whether or not it is advisable to grow this plant in your area beforehand, and take necessary precautions on its control if currently growing the plant.
Invasive in the Spotlight: Oriental Bittersweet
Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is a deciduous, woody, perennial vine native to China, Japan and Korea, that was brought to this country in the mid-1800s as an ornamental plant. Bittersweet is now considered a serious invasive species because is poses a significant threat to native plants.
Bittersweet vines have alternate, glossy, round or oval leaves that are 2-5” long. The roots are a distinctive orange color, while the vines are light to medium brown with a white pith. Bittersweet has small, greenish-yellow, five-petaled flowers, which produce green fruit in early summer that ripens to yellow and orange by the fall. The plant’s stems and bright fruits are often cut in the fall and used for decoration which can contribute to further spread of this invasive plant. Birds are also quite adept at “planting” new bittersweet vines. Many bird species enjoy eating bittersweet fruit and distribute the seeds to new areas in their droppings.
Oriental Bittersweet can be found in grasslands, woodlands, marsh edges and along road sides. It is often found in open, sunny sites, but its tolerance for shade allows it to invade forested areas as well. It is an extremely aggressive vine that climbs on other vegetation, restricting its host plant’s access to sunlight, nutrients and water. The added weight of bittersweet vines also makes trees and other plants more vulnerable to storm damage.
If the bittersweet infestation is light, hand-pulling vines can be effective, especially before the vines have fruited. Place vines in plastic trash bags and dispose of them, or bake the vines in the sun on a tarp or on a paved surface to kill the roots and seeds. Bittersweet often resprouts from root fragments, so use care to remove as many roots as possible to avoid regrowth.
Heavier infestations may be controlled by cutting stems and painting them with an herbicide in early summer through winter.
Always use an Integrated Pest Management Approach.
If you love the look of bittersweet in your garden, consider planting native, American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens). American bittersweet can be used in floral arrangements in much the same way as oriental bittersweet.
Large oriental bittersweet climbing tree Picture by Zefram on Wikipedia Commons
Oriental bittersweet berries in winter Picture by Esteve Conaway on Flickr
Close up of oriental bittersweet leaves in summer Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org
Oriental bittersweet in the fall
Oriental bittersweet in spring climbing over native plants
Bittersweet nightshade identification and control
Bittersweet nightshade is a slender perennial vine or semi-woody shrub found throughout King County, especially in creeks and wetlands, as well as field edges, gardens, parks, and roadsides. This plant is toxic to people, pets, and livestock. Leaves are dark green to purple-tinged. Mid-May to September, produces star-shaped purple flowers with stamens fused in a prominent yellow cone. Flowers followed by round or egg-shaped berries that ripen from green, to orange, to bright red. All stages of berry can grow on same plant. Spreads by seed, as well as stem and root fragments.
Legal status in King County, Washington
Bittersweet nightshade is not on the Washington State Noxious Weed List and property owners are not required to control this plant. However, in King County, it is classified as a Weed of Concern and control is recommended, especially in natural areas that are being restored to native vegetation and along stream banks where nightshade can interfere with fish habitat.
For more information about noxious weed regulations and definitions, see Noxious weed lists and laws.
Identification (see below for additional photos)
- Perennial vine or sprawling shrub; lower stems woody, upper herbaceous branches die back each year
- Flowers have star-shaped, purple, backward-pointing petals and stamens fused in a prominent yellow cone; grow in clusters along branches on short stalks extending out from the stems
- Berries are round or egg-shaped and bright red when ripe with numerous yellow, flattened seeds; unripe berries are green
- Leaves are dark-green to purplish and often with one or two small ear-like lobes near the base, leaf blades are 1 to 4 inches long
- Main root grows horizontally just below the surface and suckers frequently
- Crushed leaves and bark have an unpleasant smell
Although this is not the same plant as deadly nightshade or belladonna (an uncommon and extremely poisonous plant), bittersweet nightshade is somewhat poisonous and has caused loss of livestock and pet poisoning and, more rarely, sickness and even death in children who have eaten the berries. Fortunately, bittersweet nightshade has a strong, unpleasant odor, so most animals will avoid it, and poisonings from this plant are not very frequent.
The entire plant contains solanine, the same toxin found in green potatoes and other members of the nightshade family, and it also contains a glycoside called dulcamarine, similar in structure and effects to atropine, one of the toxins found in deadly nightshade. The toxin amount varies with soil, light, climate and growth stage. Ripe fruits are generally less toxic than the leaves and unripe berries, but even ripe berries can be poisonous.
Habitat and impact
Bittersweet nightshade is very common in King County and found everywhere from backyards to pastures, creeks, roadsides and vacant lots. Although it is not usually the dominant weed where it is found, in some local creeks and wetlands it has formed large, dense and damaging infestations. It can become so prolific that it is grows out into the creek, creating a false gravel bed and interfering with fish movement upstream. It is very capable of taking advantage of disturbed, moist habitats and out-competing native shrubs and even small trees such as willows and alders.
Growth and reproduction
- Flowers from mid-May to September
- Fruit and seed production can be abundant; each berry contains about 30 seeds
- Spreads to new locations by birds eating the ripe berries and by fragments of stem and root moving in soil or water
- Moves out from a parent plant by way of suckering roots, prostrate stems rooting at nodes, and by growing up and over vegetation or structures like fences and buildings
- Climbs onto small trees, shrubs and fences or remains low-growing depending on what is available; can climb 30 feet or higher into trees or form thickets along the ground
- Branches grow and die back 3 to 6 feet or more each year
Additional information on bittersweet nightshade
- King County Noxious Weed Alert: Bittersweet Nightshade
- King County Noxious Weed Control Best Management Practices: Bittersweet Nightshade
- University of Washington Burke Herbarium Image Collection: Solanum dulcamara
What to do if you find this plant in King County, Washington
Because bittersweet nightshade is very widespread and not on the State Noxious Weed List, we are not tracking locations. If you would like information or advice on how to control this plant, please feel free to contact our office. If you are concerned about where the plant is growing on public lands or trails, we can direct you to the agency responsible for that area.
Awareness and prevention are the best defenses against the accidental ingestion of poisonous berries and seeds. Here are a few steps you can take to help protect your child.
Know the name of the plants growing in and near your home. If possible, write the scientific and common names of the plants on a weather-proof tag and attach it to the plant.
If you’re not sure of this information, take a cutting (a 6- to 8-inch piece that includes leaves, berries and flowers) from the shrub to a garden center, nursery or florist for identification.
If an accidental ingestion does happen, this information will be very helpful to the Poison Control Center.
Check your children’s play areas often for growing weeds and remove them before your children find them. Clean up fallen seeds or pods from nearby trees.
For removal of poison ivy, oak or sumac plants, use only commercial herbicides intended for these plants and follow the manufacturers’ directions carefully.
Consider using artificial berries for indoor decorations as an alternative to live berries, which may be poisonous.