By Jackie Carroll
Bittersweet vines are North American native plants that thrive throughout most of the U.S. In the wild, you can find it growing on the edges of glades, on rocky slopes, in woodland areas and in thickets. It often winds itself around trees and covers low-growing shrubs. In the home landscape, you can try growing bittersweet along a fence or other support structure.
What is American Bittersweet Vine?
American bittersweet is a vigorous deciduous, perennial vine that grows 15 to 20 feet tall. It is native to central and eastern North America. They produce yellowish-green flowers that bloom in spring, but the flowers are plain and uninteresting compared to the berries that follow. As the flowers fade, orange-yellow capsules appear.
In late fall and winter, the capsules open at the ends to display the bright red berries inside. The berries remain on the plant well into winter, brightening winter landscapes and attracting birds and other wildlife. The berries are poisonous to humans if eaten, however, so practice caution when planting around homes with small children.
Growing Bittersweet Vines
In very cold climates, make sure you plant American bittersweet vine (Celastrus scandens) rather than Chinese bittersweet (Celastrus rosthornianus). American bittersweet vine is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 3 through 8, while Chinese bittersweet suffers frost damage and may die to the ground in USDA zones 3 and 4.
When growing bittersweet for the attractive berries, you’ll need both a male and female plant. The female plants produce the berries, but only if there is a male plant nearby to fertilize the flowers.
American bittersweet vine grows quickly, covering trellises, arbors, fences and walls. Use it to cover unsightly features in the home landscape. When used as a ground cover, it will hide rock piles and tree stumps. The vine will climb trees readily, but limit the tree climbing activity to mature trees only. The vigorous vines can damage young trees.
American Bittersweet Plant Care
American bittersweet thrives in sunny locations and in almost any soil. Water these bittersweet vines by soaking the surrounding soil during dry spells.
Bittersweet vine doesn’t usually need fertilization, but if it appears to get off to a slow start, it may benefit from a small dose of general purpose fertilizer. Vines that receive too much fertilizer don’t flower or fruit well.
Prune the vines in late winter or early spring to remove dead shoots and control excess growth.