American Bittersweet (Scandens)

The American Bittersweet (Scandens) is generally described as a perennial vine. This is native to the U.S. (United States) has its most active growth period in the spring and summer . The greatest bloom is usually observed in the spring, with fruit and seed production starting in the summer and continuing until fall. Leaves are not retained year to year. The American Bittersweet (Scandens) has a moderate life span relative to most other plant species and a rapid growth rate. At maturity, the typical American Bittersweet (Scandens) will reach up to 2 feet high, with a maximum height at 20 years of 2 feet.

The American Bittersweet (Scandens) is easily found in nurseries, garden stores and other plant dealers and distributors. It can be propagated by bare root, container, seed. It has a moderate ability to spread through seed production and the seedlings have medium vigor. Note that cold stratification is not required for seed germination and the plant cannot survive exposure to temperatures below -38°F. has medium tolerance to drought and restricted water conditions.

Uses of : Landscaping, Medicinal, Culinary, etc.

American bittersweet is valued for its glossy green summer foliage followed by orange and red fruits and seeds, and several landscape cultivars are commercially marketed. The branches with colorful berries and arils are used in dry flower arrangements and winter decoration.

All parts of bittersweet are reported to be poisonous, but songbirds, ruffed grouse, pheasant, and fox squirrel eat the fruits. The Menominee, Ojibwa, and Potawatami tribes of North American Indians have used the inner bark as an emergency food. Various parts of the plant have been used in decoctions and ointments for a variety of ailments, including cough, intestinal, and gynecological problems.

Oil expressed from the seeds of the related species Celastrus paniculatus, a shrub native to India, has been used medicinally in India for centuries. The oil is used to increase memory and facilitate learning. It induces a feeling of well being and has reported aphrodisiac effects.

General Characteristics

General: Bittersweet family (Celastraceae). Native dioecious or partly dioecious, semi-shrubs or semi-shrubby vines, forming low, thick stands from root suckers, clambering and climbing onto fences and trees, broadly twining and sometimes reaching nearly 20 meters high, the older stems becoming several cm broad; roots long, woody, bright-orange, creeping, about 2-3 cm thick, with a thick, red or yellowish-red bark (the medicinal part). Leaves are deciduous, alternate, spiral or somewhat 2-ranked by the twisting of the stem, glabrous, 5-12 cm long and about half as wide, oblong-elliptic to ovate or obovate, acuminate at the tip, with small, rounded teeth, the petioles 1-2 cm long. Flowers are unisexual (with either the stamens or the ovary abortive) or rarely bisexual, fragrant, small (ca. 4 mm wide), greenish-white or greenish-yellow, in clusters at the branch tips, usually with 14-44 flowers per cluster. Fruits are orange to yellow-orange, globose, 7-10 mm wide, with 2-4 cells; seeds 1-2 in each cell, each seed enclosed in a bright scarlet fleshy aril.

The related oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus Thunb.) is becoming more common than American bittersweet and is attaining a similar geographic range. The following contrast gives information for their separation:

1. Leaves mostly oblong-elliptic to ovate, 1.8-2.6 times longer than wide; flowers and fruits 6 or more in panicles (irregularly branching) at the branch tips. Celastrus scandens

2. Leaves mostly obicular to suborbicular or broadly obovate, 1.2-1.7 times longer than wide; flowers and fruits 2-3 in cymes (regularly branching) in the leaf axils below the branch tips. Celastrus orbiculatus

Required Growing Conditions

American bittersweet grows over the eastern two-thirds of the US (except for Florida), on the western edge of the range from Texas and Oklahoma to Wyoming and Montana, and across southeastern Canada from Saskatchewan to New Brunswick.

Adaptation In rich or swampy woods, or appearing weedy in disturbed areas in thickets, roadsides, field edges, fences, and other disturbed sites. This species flowers in late May through June and produces fruits in June through November.

Cultivation and Care

The seeds are widely distributed by birds, which accounts for the tendency of the species to occur in disturbed habitats. Prechilling apparently is required to break dormancy -- seeds stratified for 90 days at 5º C., then planted in soil maintained at 20-25º, germinated at 71%.

General Upkeep and Control

American bittersweet vines can girdle and kill live plants used for support but the native species rarely presents a problem because of its relative lack of abundance. Oriental bittersweet, however, is displacing the native species where they have begun to occur together, and there is some indication that they are hybridizing. The non-native species grows over vegetation and kills other plants by preventing photosynthesis, girdling, and uprooting by force of its massive weight. Its seeds are more numerous and more desirable by birds, thus more widely dispersed and they have a higher germination rate. The non-native species has higher pollen viability and also is more efficient in photosynthesis. Further, oriental bittersweet has been planted along roadsides for erosion control, it is propagated for horticulture and sold commercially, and its seeds are spread to waste places through disposal of dried flower arrangements.

Plant Basics
Growth Rate Rapid
General Type Vine
Growth Period Spring, Summer
Growth Duration Perennial
Lifespan Moderate
Plant Nativity Native to U.S.
Commercial Availability Routinely Available
Physical Characteristics
Bloom Period Spring
Displays Fall Colors Yes
Shape/Growth Form Thicket Forming
Drought Tolerance Medium
Shade Tolerance Tolerant
Height When Mature 2
Vegetative Spread Rapid
Flower Color White
Flower Conspicuousness No
Fruit/Seed Abundance High
Fruit/Seed Seasonality Summer Fall
Seed Spread Rate Moderate
Gardening Characteristics
Propagations (Ways to Grow) Bare Root, Container, Seed
Moisture Requirements High
Cold Stratification Required Yes
Minimum Temperature -38
Soil Depth for Roots 18
Toxic to Nearby Plants No
Toxic to Livestock No
After-Harvest Resprout Ability No
Responds to Coppicing No
Growth Requirements
pH Range 5–7.5 pH
Precipitation Range 30–30 inches/yr
Planting Density 1200–4800 indiv./acre
Soil Textures Coarse, Fine, Medium
Soil Depth for Roots 18
Minimum Frost-Free Days 110 day(s)
Salinity Tolerance None
CaCO3 Tolerance Medium
Sustainability & Use
Leaf Retention No
Palatability Low
Fire Resistant No

Source: USDA, NRCS, PLANTS Database,
National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA