American bittersweet

American bittersweet growing over a wall.

American bittersweet is a climbing vine that twines around its support. Its attractive feature is its autumn fruit, a yellow-orange three-lobed capsule with showy orange-red seeds.  For fruit, American bittersweet needs both male and female vines and should be should be sited in full sun and pruned in early spring. Do not confuse this vine with Oriental bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus, an invasive plant. 

This species is native to the Chicago region according to Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.

This plant has some cultivated varieties. Go to list of cultivars.

Botanical name:

Celastrus scandens

All Common Names:

American bittersweet, Climbing bittersweet

Family (English):

Staff-tree

Family (Botanic):

Celastraceae

Tree or Plant Type:

  • Vine

Foliage:

  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)

Native Locale:

  • Chicago area,
  • Illinois,
  • North America

Landscape Uses:

  • Massing,
  • Screen,
  • Specimen

Size Range:

  • Large plant (more than 24 inches)

Light Exposure:

  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily),
  • Partial sun/shade (4-6 hrs light daily)

Hardiness Zones:

  • Zone 3,
  • Zone 4,
  • Zone 5 (Chicago),
  • Zone 6,
  • Zone 7,
  • Zone 8

Soil Preference:

  • Alkaline soil,
  • Moist, well-drained soil,
  • Sandy soil

Season of Interest:

  • Early winter,
  • Mid winter,
  • Early fall,
  • Mid fall,
  • Late fall

Flower Color & Fragrance:

  • Inconspicuous

Shape or Form:

  • Vining

Growth Rate:

  • Moderate,
  • Fast

More Information:

Size and Method of Climbing

A twining vine growing 30 to 40 feet long.  Twining vines climb by twisting their stems or leaf stalks around a support.  This type of vine grows well on trellises, arbors, wires or chain-link fences.

Plant Care

Prune in early spring to keep under control and promote fruiting.
Both a male and female plant are needed to produce fruit on the female plant.
Not to be confused with Oriental bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus, an invasive plant. 

Disease, pests and problems

Powdery mildew, crown gall and euonymus scale

Disease, pests and problem resistance

Tolerant of black walnut toxicity.

Native geographic location and habitat

C-Value:  4
Found in a wide range of growing conditions.  Native to Illinois and the Chicago region.

Leaf description

Simple, alternate leaves are 4 inch long ovals with finely toothed margins; leaf tips elongated.  (Oriental bittersweet leaves are more rounded.)
Fall color is yellow.

Flower description

Inconspicuous; small flowers in terminal clusters.  (Oriental bittersweet flower clusters are borne in the leaf axils.)

Fruit description

Fruit  is a yellow-orange, three-lobed capsule with showy orange-red seeds, often persistent into winter.  Male and female plants are required to set fruit.

Cultivars and their differences

Autumn Revolution™ American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens 'Bailumn'): A self-pollinating plant.  Only one plant is needed to produce fruit.  Fruit are large and abundant.

Location of Celastrus scandens (American bittersweet) at the Arboretum