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Growing and Harvesting Bittersweet
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.
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.
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.
Ask a QuestionHere are the questions asked by community members. Read on to see the answers provided by the ThriftyFun community or ask a new question.
I am visiting family in Iowa and would love to cut some of the huge amounts of bittersweet at my mom's farm. If I cut it with the berries still green will they eventually turn to the beautiful orange-red as they dry?
I have a bitter sweet branch that I placed in a jar of water and it's growing new foliage. Can I some how transplant this branch?
By Dennis R
Eons ago I used to go to davesgarden.com for excellent planting advice. I haven't been there in a long time so I don't know if it is still available. I hope so because they provided me with lots of good advice. You can get good regional info there so if you move from one state to another they can help you. We left Tn and moved to Tx and stayed for 30 years so I had forgotten how to get plants to grow in Tn. I got some good info off that site.
How do I start bittersweet vines from the seeds? Thank you.
By Rebecca from Syracuse, OH
How do you start plants from bittersweet cuttings?
Is it illegal to cut and sell bittersweet in the state of Ohio?
By Carol E.
I received three plants from a respected nursery and planted them three years ago. They struggled, but are now doing well, especially this summer. I live in the Georgia mountains. There are still no berries. Should I have them by now?
By Diana H
Do bittersweet seeds contain both male and female genders, or are some seeds strictly male, and some seeds strictly female?
By Lynn P.
Can you grow bittersweet in Colorado?
For bittersweet vines they say you have to have female and male vines in order to grow them. Is this true? Also I would like to know how long does it take a bittersweet vine to produce flowers?
Hardiness Zone: 5a
By Jenny from Lincoln, IL
I planted my bittersweet plants about 3 years ago. The vine is nice and full and is very healthy (yes, I have a male and female), but this is the first year that I have 3 berries. What is the problem?
Hardiness Zone: 6a
By Janice from southwestern Ontario
I received my bittersweet plants in the mail and was wondering if I would use the fall planting instructions to plant them now in April?
Hardiness Zone: 5a
By Lynn from Madison, NE
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I would love to grow bittersweet, but have no knowledge in it. I have dried seeds and know to plant them on a fence row, but what time of year should I plant and should it be in full sun, shade, etc.? Thanks for yous help.
Hardiness Zone: 5a
By Cindy from Peru, IN
I accidentally "planted" bittersweet when I had some bittersweet on a wreath on my door. Think twice about this plant because it is very invasive. It climbed all over the other plants and was very very difficult to get rid of once I realized what a problem I had on my hands. (06/08/2010)
Yes, Merlene is right. It is very invasive. But if you have a place to plant it where it can grow wild with no interference then I say go for it. I have seen it sell very high at craft fairs. For me, it is a nice memory because my mother use to gather it every fall for a thrifty arrangement. (06/08/2010)