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Growing Bittersweet

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.
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Two Common Types

American 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.

Chinese Bittersweet:

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).
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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.

Harvesting Bittersweet

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.


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Questions

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.

0 found this helpful
September 15, 2016

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?

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Answer Was this helpful? Yes
March 2, 20170 found this helpful

I picked some early once, and it just turned brown. But, its worth a try!

Reply Was this helpful? Yes

March 19, 20150 found this helpful

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

Answer Was this helpful? Yes
March 24, 20150 found this helpful

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.

Reply Was this helpful? Yes
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Anonymous
April 30, 20160 found this helpful

Yes

Reply Was this helpful? Yes
May 8, 20170 found this helpful

You can but to produce the pretty berries you need both male and female plants planted close together.

Reply Was this helpful? Yes

May 24, 20120 found this helpful

How do I start bittersweet vines from the seeds? Thank you.

By Rebecca from Syracuse, OH

Answer Was this helpful? Yes
January 2, 20170 found this helpful

How do you start plants from bittersweet cuttings?

Reply Was this helpful? Yes

September 22, 20130 found this helpful

Is it illegal to cut and sell bittersweet in the state of Ohio?

By Carol E.

Answer Was this helpful? Yes

September 15, 20130 found this helpful

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

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July 15, 20130 found this helpful

Do bittersweet seeds contain both male and female genders, or are some seeds strictly male, and some seeds strictly female?

By Lynn P.

Answer Was this helpful? Yes

December 28, 20120 found this helpful

Can you grow bittersweet in Colorado?

By Sonda

Answer Was this helpful? Yes

1 found this helpful
September 30, 2010

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

Answer Was this helpful? 1

0 found this helpful
September 20, 2010

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?

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Hardiness Zone: 6a

By Janice from southwestern Ontario

Answer Was this helpful? Yes

0 found this helpful
April 27, 2010

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

Answer Was this helpful? Yes

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September 30, 20100 found this helpful

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

Answers:

Growing Bittersweet

  1. Select an area for planting. Bittersweet can tolerate both sun and shade. However, to encourage fruit to grow, some sun is needed. Bittersweet can also tolerate poor soil conditions, but by adding 2 inches of compost or peat moss to poor soil, it may thrive even more.

  2. Dig a hole that is just as deep, but two times as wide as the container your bittersweet came in. Take the bittersweet out of the container and place it in the hole, then backfill the soil. Water and pat down the soil well to avoid air pockets.

  3. Plant several plants if you want your female bittersweets to bear fruit. You need to have both male and female for the females to bear fruit, but unfortunately, sometimes the sexes are not labeled. By purchasing and planting three to five plants, you are most likely going to get a mix. Plant multiple bittersweets about 5 feet apart.

  4. Place 2 inches of mulch around the base of the plant, and keep it watered for the first several weeks. Established bittersweets do not need supplemental watering, except during drought conditions.

  5. Fertilize bittersweet with an all-purpose fertilizer once a year in the spring, if desired. You don't have to do this, but it will encourage bittersweet to grow fuller with more fruits and blooms.

  6. Prune in late winter to early spring. Cut back the vine as much as you want to control growth. Cut back damaged and dead branches anytime.

Good luck.

(06/06/2010)

By kffrmw88

Growing Bittersweet

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)

By Merlene

Growing Bittersweet

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)

By Laniegirl

Comment Was this helpful? Yes
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