Growing Bittersweet

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December 11, 2008

Growing and Harvesting Bittersweet

Growing and Harvesting 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.

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).

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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13 Questions

Here are the questions asked by community members. Read on to see the answers provided by the ThriftyFun community.

September 11, 2018

On a remote island on Lake of the Woods (Northwestern Ontario), there are quite a lot of what I thought was American Bittersweet vines. But looking at the new growth, what must be a shoot arising from the roots, the new leaves have a leaf thorn.

Does that mean this is Oriental Bittersweet?

Identifying American Bittersweet - closeup with visible thorn
Identifying American Bittersweet


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September 11, 20180 found this helpful

It could be a hybrid. This Michigan article talks about them:

This second article is interesting also.


Perhaps your ag ministry can give you ways to control the invasive nature of these vines. Their contact info is below:


Gold Feedback Medal for All Time! 949 Feedbacks
September 11, 20180 found this helpful

From your comments I do not believe this is in your yard but something you are interested in?

If it has thorns then it most likely is the dreaded Oriental bittersweet and will most likely eventually kill that tree it is growing on.

The Oriental bittersweet plant is similar to a lot of other plants that people either love or hate but it seems it is definitely an invasive plant and most cities do not want it in their area.

But - bird people like it because it seems to give birds a lot of food during the cold winter months when not much else is around.

Here is a statement that explains how to distinguish between the American bittersweet and the Oriental bittersweet (besides the thorns):

"Another way to distinguish between American and oriental types is by discerning the location of their berries: the berries of American bittersweet plants appear at the tips of the vines only, while those of the oriental type grow along the vine."

I really found this note interesting as I had not idea this plant was so rare but i live in Florida and this plant is not plentiful in my area.

"American bittersweet plant is becoming so rare in some areas that it is now a protected species."

Here is a very interesting article that discusses the good and bad of both plants and what can be done if it needs to be killed in some area.

It is possible the Oriental bittersweet is not considered a menace on the island you are talking about (since you say it is remote) but someone from your ministry of agriculture could tell you this.

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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?


Silver Post Medal for All Time! 255 Posts
March 2, 20170 found this helpful

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

August 19, 20180 found this helpful


September 16, 20180 found this helpful

Once cut, the vine begins to dry immediately and the capsules, as they are called, will split open to reveal the bright orange fruit inside! This can happen quickly, sometimes overnight and sometimes before! Youll want to arrange it as you plan to use it right away in order to preserve the delicate pieces of the dried opened capsule from falling off. Enjoy!!

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March 19, 2015

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


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March 24, 20150 found this helpful

Eons ago I used to go to 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.

April 30, 20160 found this helpful


May 8, 20170 found this helpful

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

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May 24, 2012

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

By Rebecca from Syracuse, OH

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September 22, 2013

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

By Carol E.

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September 15, 2013

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, 2013

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

By Lynn P.

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December 28, 2012

Can you grow bittersweet in Colorado?

By Sonda

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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

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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?

Hardiness Zone: 6a

By janice from southwestern Ontario

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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

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ThriftyFun is one of the longest running frugal living communities on the Internet. These are archives of older discussions.

September 30, 2010

I would love to grow bittersweet, but have no knowledge in it.

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