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American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens): An American Beauty

By Jim Lakin MD, Master Gardener

American Bittersweet is a hardy native vine traditionally found on country roads and farms. It puts on a beautiful display of orange-hulled fruit in autumn. It has been a favorite material for welcoming door wreaths. Read this article about this beautiful and useful native Minnesota plant.

American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens): An American Beauty

A few years back, each fall we used to scan the shoulders of country roads for native bittersweet.  It was an old custom of local farm folk to make wreathes of bittersweet to hang over their doors as a welcome.  Apparently, this old folkway has caught on and wild bittersweet has become a rarity, at least around the Cities.  Fortunately, this hardy native vine can still be purchased at local nurseries and you can “grow you own” fall decorations.

Bittersweet is found in mesic woods, woodland edges and hedgerows throughout the Upper Midwest.  Its great attraction is its display of orange-hulled, vermillion fruit which form in the late summer, creating a brilliant display in autumn after leaf-drop.


Bittersweet is fairly easy to grow in well-drained soil.  It isn’t too fussy about the clay soils we so often encounter here.  Full sun to part shade is a must for vigorous growth.  Although the vine can be slow growing for the first season or two it will eventually take off and be quite drought resistant.  This is a plus given the dry summers we have recently been experiencing.  You will want to place it on a fence or a trellis as it is a vigorous woody vine.  Another approach is to plant it among established small trees in a woodland edge.  This sets it up for a show in the late fall when the trees are bare.  One caveat: Celastrus scandens is dioecious, meaning vines are either male or female.  So, it takes “two to tango” to generate that wonderful orange-red fruit.  Hopefully your nursery can help you to obtain the correct gender of vines.  If you are growing bittersweet from seed or are purchasing seedlings, plant several of them in proximity to assure a male and female vine for fruiting.


One other caveat: American bittersweet should not be confused with Oriental Roundleaf bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus).  The latter is native to China but has proven to be highly invasive here in North America.  In theory it should no longer be sold in commercial nurseries, but you never know.  It is pretty easy to differentiate from American bittersweet in that the native plant’s fruit capsules are orange.  Oriental bittersweet’s fruit capsules are yellow.  American bittersweet’s fruits are on the terminal stem ends.  Orientals are along the stems at the leaf axis.  If you come across oriental bittersweet on your property, eliminate it! 

The MN Department of Agriculture has good information on the subject: ( ).

Photo credits: MN Department of Agriculture (all)

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