How to Grow American Bittersweet, a Native Plant, for Winter Interest

Updated on May 7, 2019
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Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

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Love bittersweet but hate how it takes over your yard? Try growing American bittersweet, a native plant that is easier to control while providing berries that add color to the winter landscape.

What is American Bittersweet?

American bittersweet is a woody perennial vine that is native to North America. It is hardy in zones 3 through 8. The vines are commonly found in the woods growing on trees. They can attain a length of 20 to 30 feet. The vines are dioecious, meaning they are either male or female. You need both to produce the berries. The male flowers are very inconspicuous. The female flowers are larger but still small. Both are green. Bloomtime is late May through June. The vines need pollen from the male flowers to fertilize the female flowers. Only the female vines have berries which appear any time from June through November. The berries start out orange, but that is just a capsule covering the actual berries. The capsules open in the fall revealing the red berries.

The berries are an important food source for birds and animals in the winter. Songbirds, pheasants, Ruffed grouse and even foxes eat the berries. Unfortunately, the berries are toxic for humans causing vomiting and diarrhea.

American Bittersweet vines climb trees for support
American Bittersweet vines climb trees for support | Source

What is the Difference Between American Bittersweet and Oriental Bittersweet?

American Bittersweet is a native plant that is relatively well-behaved. Oriental Bittersweet is an exotic that has become a dangerous invasive plant. The term “exotic” refers to the fact that a plant is not a native plant. It has been imported from another part of the world. Many imported plants become what’s known as “invasive plants” which means that they grow very quickly and crowd out the native plants.

Oriental bittersweet is native to China, Japan and Korea. It was introduced into the United States in 1879 as an ornamental plant. It has escaped from gardens and naturalized in the landscape. It is much larger and faster growing than American bittersweet, growing as much as 60 feet in one year. It not only climbs trees, it kills them. The weight of the huge vines topples even the largest trees. The vines are very thick, often reaching 4 inches in diameter. They don’t just climb trees, they twine around the tree trunks and squeeze them in a process known as “girdling”. Eventually they strangle the trees and kill them.

Initially, the berries are covered with orange capsules which open to reveal the berries inside.
Initially, the berries are covered with orange capsules which open to reveal the berries inside. | Source

How to Grow American Bittersweet

If you want to grow American bittersweet for its colorful berries, you will need both a male and female vine. Without a male vine to pollinate the female vine, you will not get any berries. Plant your vines in a sunny location with good drainage. American bittersweet will tolerate some shade, but grows best and produces the most berries in full sun.

The vines grow 20 feet high and 20 feet wide so they will need support. Despite the fact that they climb trees in the woodlands, it’s not a good idea to encourage your vines to climb trees or shrubs in your yard. Large mature trees can bear the weight of the vines whereas smaller trees and shrubs commonly found in our yards will be smothered. Provide your vines with a sturdy trellis or fence to grow on. If you are growing your vines on a trellis by a building or wall, be sure to place your trellis several inches away from the wall to allow for air circulation between the vine and the wall. American bittersweet is prone to powdery mildew which occurs when there is poor air circulation.

Water the vines when there is less than one inch of rainfall per week. You will only need to fertilize once a year in the spring. Apply a shovelful of compost or slow release fertilizer at the base and work it into the soil.

The berries are red.
The berries are red. | Source

How to Prune American Bittersweet

Pruning should be done in the winter when the vines are dormant. Remove any damaged or diseased branches. You will also want to remove any branches that produced berries. This will encourage new growth in the spring. American bittersweet blooms on “new wood” which is the new growth that appears in the spring. Branches that have already produced berries are considered “old wood” and won’t bloom and produce berries again.

Sometimes, no matter how diligent you are about your pruning, the vines will grow and become a tangled mess. This is not a problem. Just prune the entire vine down to ground level. Don’t worry, it will grow back in the spring with the added advantage that all of the branches will be “new wood” and will all flower and produce berries.

How to Grow American Bitterweet From Cuttings

When propagating American bittersweet vines by cuttings, remember that each vine is either male or female. Cuttings from a female vine will result in female vines and cuttings from male vines will result in more male vines. You need both a male and female vine to produce berries. So if you want berries, be sure that your cuttings aren’t just from a male vine. Male vines do not produce berries.

Softwood Cuttings

Softwood cuttings refer to cuttings from woody plants that are taken from the ends of the branches in spring or early summer while they are actively growing and not yet hard and woody. The advantage of taking softwood cuttings is that the branch is growing and once separated from the plant, will quickly grow roots.

Take a cutting that is 3 to 5 inches long from the end of a branch in midsummer. Strip the foliage from the bottom half of your cutting. Dip it in rooting hormone to speed up the growth of roots. Then gently plant it in a container with soil that is 2 parts perlite and 1 part sphagnum moss. Place the container in a sunny location, keeping the soil moist. Roots should appear in 2 to 5 weeks.

Hardwood Cuttings

Hardwood cuttings are taken during the winter when a woody plant is dormant. The advantage of propagation by hardwood cuttings is that your cutting will have rooted and started growing by the spring so that you can plant your new vine after all danger of frost has passed.

Take a cutting that is 6 to 10 inches long from the end of a branch. It’s okay that the branch has no leaves. Dip it in rooting hormone to speed up the growth of roots. Gently plant it in a container with a mixture of 1 part sphagnum moss and 2 parts perlite. Water the soil thoroughly and then cover both the plant and the container with a clear plastic bag. Place the container with your cutting on the north side of your house where it will not get direct sunlight which could fry your plant. There is no need to water your cutting. The plastic bag will act as a greenhouse keeping your cutting warm and moist. In the spring, your formerly bare cutting will start growing leaves. That tells you that it is time to remove the bag. After a week of getting acclimated to the outside, your cutting will be ready to plant.

How to Grow American Bittersweet From Seeds

American bittersweet is very easy to grow from seed. Harvest the berries in the fall after the capsule has opened. You don’t need the capsules, just the berries. Spread the berries on a paper plate or paper towel in a single layer and allow them to dry for 2 to 3 weeks. When the berries are dried, remove the seeds from them and dry just the seeds for an additional week.

The seeds need to be cold stratified to germinate. Cold stratification mimics winter weather which is what the seeds experience in nature. They have evolved to only germinate after the cold weather has passed and the warm spring weather has commenced.

Sow the seeds in a container, lightly covering them with soil. Moisten the soil. Then cover the container with a clear plastic bag and place it in your refrigerator for 3 months. After 3 months, the seeds should start to germinate. That means that it is time to remove the container from your refrigerator and remove the bag. Place the container in a sunny place indoors. Your seedlings will be ready to transplant outdoors after all danger of frost has passed.

Questions & Answers

© 2018 Caren White

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