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Species Spotlight – Celastrus scandens

Celastrus scandens

It's getting harder to find the straight native species

ArcheWild receives dozens of inquiries every year for American bittersweet, Celastrus scandens.  But until recently, we’ve had a terribly difficult time finding vines that appear to be free from their Asian cousins’ influence.  At long last, we’ve discovered a few isolated patches, far from roads or development, that we consider clean.  There are several websites that explain the differences between American and Oriental bittersweet, but we find that good pictures of their different stages of development are helpful.

The main distinguishing characteristics of American bittersweet include:

  • A short, stout vine with a single trunk
  • Does not seem to root along the stems
  • Very large, grape-like fruit clusters
  • Each fruit is about 3-4 times the volume of Oriental bittersweet
  • When the fruit are green or yellow, its easy to mistake for an immature Crataegus
  • Most often found on cliffs or on old fences, far away from any shade
  • All fruit clusters are at the end of a twig
  • The fruit capsule valves are a distinct orange, not yellow

Soil requirements seem to be well-drained, but moist, sandy soils like those you might find in a Coastal Plain ecosystem, or a prairie.  Their main roots are fairly shallow, down to 6-9″ deep so they likely cannot be allowed to dry out.

ArcheWild will begin offering Celastrus scandens starting in 2018 and it should quickly become a standard inventory item available in several sizes.  USDA range map below.


All plant images © 2012-2017 ArcheWild.

This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. I stopped selling “native” bittersweet at our native plant Nursery (Hill House Farm & Nursery) several years ago after learning from William Cullina (lecturer, author, and past president of NE Wildflower Society, etc) that the native Celastrus readily crosses with the non-native, highly-invasive Asian Celastrus; we don’t really know what cross species we are getting as a result. In our NW area of Virginia, the Asian bittersweet is a rampant invasive, choking-out other plants (native or not!).

    There’s quite a discussion happening here for the past few years about bittersweet. Gary Fleming, Vegetation Ecologist at VA Heritage Program (VA Dept. of Conservation & Recreation), confirmed that the American Bittersweet has almost disappeared in much of VA. Some folks want to replant the native bittersweet, others believe that we are so overrun with Oriental bittersweet that we are only creating monster hybrids.

    I’m curious what you are hearing?

    Janet Davis
    Owner/Operator, Hill House Farm & Nursery
    *Native Plants for Harmonious Gardens*

    1. Personally, I would agree that trying to reintroduce the native bittersweet into areas having large populations of oriental bittersweet would probably be a waste of time, from a restoration perspective. But botanical gardens, parks such as the High Line, and other institutions still want to show their patrons what the American bittersweet actually looks like and maybe to take one home to plant along a fence or trellis. It is for these purposes that we are growing this species.

  2. I’m curious if your Celastrus scandens is propagated from seed or vegatatively. Curious to know if seedlings would be true to type w/ out mixing with C. orbiculatus. Plants would need to be isolated by a mile or so from any C. orbiculatus in order to ensure no cross pollination from pollinators.

    1. Our bittersweet is grown from seed. Our two collection sites are far removed and isolated from human activity where no oriental bittersweet is observed. But this is not a guarantee against a bee transporting pollen several miles between the two species.

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