“I was bitter. He was sweet. And in a parallel universe, we were bittersweet.” ― Dominic Riccitello
One of the most beautiful and elegant dried vines for fall gathering and enticingly asymmetrical, long lived arrangements is Bittersweet. Growing the American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) can add 4-season value and interest to your garden. If you are cursed with the Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), you have your work cut out for you trying to rid your garden of this invasive.
The typical habitat for this native bittersweet is primarily upper Piedmont and mountain woodlands, savannas, thickets, and shady riverbanks of the central and eastern U.S. It has smooth, 2-4” long green leaves that are inward curling in the Spring and produces tiny greenish-white flowers in June. In early fall, orange-yellow seed husks peel back and showcase scarlet-colored fruit.
The fruit is not safe to eat but are a favorite food for birds and small animals – the primary culprits of their expanding habitat.
Oriental (aka Chinese) Bittersweet
An invasive, this vine can grow up to 40 feet and can easily strangle a tree in a matter of a few seasons. While similar in appearance, in Spring the slightly rounder leaves are folded in half lengthwise. Oriental Bittersweet also has tiny thorns and more distinctly yellow seed casings. Like many invasives, it spreads through seeds and rhizomes.
Planting American Bittersweet
- It is best to purchase American Bittersweet from a reputable nursery. Because it is harder to find in the wild, many states prohibit cutting it. A list of some of the nurseries selling American Bittersweet are at the end of this post.
- Fall is the best time to plant and it is necessary to have male and female plants to have berries. One male plant can produce enough pollen for 5-6 female plants (mostly spread by bees). While it grows well in both shade and sun, sun is necessary for fruit production.
- Planting it along a fence or arbor so you can control its spread is advisable. Do not let it climb up a tree because the twining nature of these vines will easily girdle the trunk. Occasional light pruning will keep the appearance tidy and help reign in the size. Pruning is done in late winter or early spring when the vine is dormant.
How to Harvest Bittersweet
- Many sites will recommend harvesting bittersweet as soon as the scarlet fruit appears. My experience has been to cut just ahead of this. As the vine dries, the pods open anyway and you won’t lose as many of the petals of the husks.
- Cut the bittersweet into manageable pieces keeping the form of the vines in mind. You don’t want to lose a wonderful twist or turn because you cut a piece too short. My mother and I harvested some Oriental Bittersweet one year and had it draped over furniture and floors on her sunporch until dried.
- You can remove the leaves either before of after drying. As the vines dry, many of the leaves will shrivel off and fall on their own.
- Hanging the bittersweet in a warm, dry spot will make it useable faster, but any dry space will do. It is best not to disturb it while drying. As the fruit dries, the husks will open to reveal the fruit.
Where to find Bittersweet in Virginia
In early September, head west, young men, women and fans of all ages. Bittersweet can be found along roadsides in the Blue Ridge foothills and the mountains themselves. I have found it on some of the backroads around Afton Mountain. Go on a sunny day and have someone with you who can be looking up into the trees or doing the driving. Best not to try both at the same time. It is a good idea to cut more than you think you will need. There is no guarantee each piece will look wonderful after it has dried. If you are lucky and each piece is perfect, they make great gifts for your other gardening friends.
What to take with you:
- Pole pruner
- Garden gloves
- Bypass clippers
- Large garbage bags for transporting (unless you want to vacuum your car afterwards)
- Bottled water as the work can sometimes be a bit warm.
If you don’t feel like harvesting your own bittersweet, you can purchase bundles on Etsy!
Removing Invasive Bittersweet
As I’ve been told about many invasive vines, “Their roots go to China!” In the case of bittersweet, you can believe that – both literally and figuratively. If you have a Bittersweet invasion, it is probably Oriental Bittersweet.
You cannot simply cut the vines as that will only encourage new growth. You need to cut it off at the ground and dig out the stump. Keep an eye on the spot as new plants can grow from any remaining roots. If new shoots appear, repeat the process until it is gone.
As with many invasive plants, the seeds of the Oriental Bittersweet are spread by birds and other animals, and they remain viable for many years. Preventing the vines from fruiting will help keep the invasion in check.
Tips on Managing Your Bittersweet
- Once established, it is difficult to remove, so be sure you are planting it where you want it.
- New shoots will appear every year. You will want to pull them or move them to another location. Too many plants in one place can be overwhelming.
- When your dried Bittersweet is spent, do not compost. If you do, you will have bittersweet vines everywhere you use the compost as the seeds remain viable for many years.
Other Uses for Bittersweet
(Please don’t try to make these yourself. The leaves and fruit are poisonous if used incorrectly. If that statement isn’t enough, here’s another: “Overdose may cause paralysis, slow heartbeat, low temperature, vertigo, convulsions.”)
- Tea made from root bark has emetic and diuretic properties and is a folk recipe for treating liver ailments, arthritis, childbirth pain, skin problems, leukorrhea and rheumatism.
- Bittersweet Bark is used in ointments to treat minor skin problems and burns.
- Leaf tea is astringent and used for treating diarrhea and dysentery.
- Roots were used by Native Americans and pioneers to induce vomiting, to treat venereal disease, and to treat symptoms of tuberculosis.
Other Common Names
American bittersweet, bittersweet, climbing bittersweet, false bittersweet, climbing orange-root, fever-twig, fever-twitch, staff-vine, Jacob’s-ladder, waxwork.
Where to Buy American Bittersweet
Check with your local nursery first to see if they have any plants. It is always better to buy local when you can as plants imported from other parts of the country may have a harder time adapting to Virginia’s climate.