The Bittersweet Truth — A Menace Among Us

November 20, 2008 | By | Comments (3)

Autumn

People aren’t the only ones giving thanks this time of year. Bittersweet vine is so grateful you planted it that’s it’s decided to strangle everything in your yard.

“Bittersweet vine” not ringing a bell? Oh, you’ve seen this plant, either on the side of the road or on the cover of every fall-themed magazine on the rack (pumpkins and bittersweet seem mandatory companions). It’s that vine covered with bright-yellow seed husks that open to reveal scarlet seeds. The color combination is knockout, while is why everyone who wants their house in Southern Living uses it to decorate mantels, sideboards, and front doors in fall.

What’s wrong with that? Well, first you have to know there are two bittersweets out there. One is a nice native. The other is a horrible rogue. First, let’s talk about the rogue.

Evil Bittersweet

Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), from China, has become of of the most loathsome, rampant, and destructive weeds of Eastern U.S. woods. I remember going out as a kid at  Christmas time and searching for hours to find the stuff. Now the vine comes looking for me. It’s all over the woods, literally strangling trees as big as mature dogwoods. It’s kudzu with showy berries.

A few years ago, I foolishly brought home a wreath made from Oriental bittersweet. A single seed must have fallen to the ground, because next spring this rapacious beast sprouted and started smothering everything it could reach. I tried pulling it up, but every piece of root left in the ground quickly sprouted into a sucker and grew a new vine. I thank the Man Upstairs for the gift of Roundup or it probably would have hog-tied me and let rabid possums finish me off.

Good Bittersweet

American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), from these here parts, is what people ought to be planting and using for seasonal decorations. But people favor its Chinese thug cousin for several reasons. First, oriental bittersweet fruits all along its length, while American bittersweet fruits mostly on the ends of the twining branches. Second, oriental bittersweet doesn’t usually require a pollinator to set fruit, while the native version has both male and female plants and you need both to get fruit. Trouble is, most nurseries don’t ID the sex when you buy, so up until now it’s been a crap-shoot.

A Better Bittersweet?

Bailey Nurseries in Minnesota just introduced a new American bittersweet called ‘Autumn Revolution’ that it says every gardener should crave. It has two big advantages — it’s self-pollinating, so each plant fruits, and the fruits themselves are twice the size of the ordinary native plant. You can’t deny its appeal — just look at the photo I posted, courtesy of Bailey. But it’s still a rampant vine. And birds can still eat the berries and spread the seeds, although it’s probably better behaved than oriental bittersweet and not as weedy.

Bottom line — NEVER PLANT ORIENTAL BITTERSWEET, no way, no how. ‘Autumn Revolution’ may be an acceptable, even desirable, substitute, but the Grump hasn’t tried it, so the jury is still out.

Don’t Plant These Vicious Vines Either

Yeah, they’re pretty, but when they escape to the wild, they take over:

  • Air potato or tater vine (Dioscorea bulbifera)
  • Fiveleaf akebia (Akebia quinata)
  • Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
  • Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipendunculata)

Any more terrible vines you’d like to warn fellow Grumpians about?

COMMENTS

  1. Claire B., Saskatoon

    Hi,
    Celastrus scandens actually is also found here in Saskatchewan, Canada. It is pretty slow growing. I have seen this Autumn Revolution just recently in a garden shop here and I believe it is a hybrid of C. scandens and C. orbiculatis. It has flowers on both terminal branches and leaf axils. I will not buy it even though I am having difficulty finding a C. scandens male anywhere in Canada. As a biologist (and gardener) I will not knowingly plant something that will end up compromising native species.
    Thanks for grumping about this!

    June 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm
  2. AVC

    thank you for your post. i knew i didn’t like that vine winding its way around my favorite tree.

    February 11, 2011 at 10:17 am
  3. Gardening With Confidence

    Thank you for this post!!!!
    H.

    November 21, 2008 at 3:38 pm

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