New Englanders know that the autumn blooming bittersweet vine is a catch-22. Loved for its beauty and versatility, yet loathed for its invasive and destructive ways. Bittersweet is an ornamental climbing vine that is native to Eastern Asia. It was brought over to the United States in the 1860’s and has been running rampant ever since. Hardy, fast growing and visually interesting, the vines of the bittersweet plant mirror the warm colors of autumn upon reaching maturation. Reddish-brown creeping stems and leaves support clusters of tiny yellow flowers and orange berries that usually bloom just in time for autumn floral arrangements in the Northeastern part of the United States.
Bittersweet vines are not only eye catching, they are also versatile and pliable. They are easily bent to conform to almost any shape, allowing them to be effortlessly added to existing floral arrangements and wreaths as an accent, or to be used alone in construction of a free form autumn wreath. A sweet handmade heart shaped bittersweet wreath on the door or on a fence showcases the colors of the season with understated elegance. The vines also look festive grouped in a vase or urn. They are best suited for cooler indoor rooms or for outside display as the flowers and berries will fall off when exposed to warmer indoor temperatures, and they can stain clothing and flooring.
To incorporate bittersweet berries into your fall décor, begin by cutting the vines while the berries are still green if possible, and form them into wreaths immediately. If you wait until the flowers and berries are in bloom, the flowers and fruits may drop off while you arrange the wreath.
Bittersweet is easily located all over New England as it has grown wildly out of control on roadsides, and can even be seen engulfing abandoned buildings in some areas. If you reside in North America, there is a high probability that you have a bittersweet source very close by. A word of caution — when left unregulated, established bittersweet vines will literally take over the landscape, smothering out native species of trees, shrubs and plantings. The tangled vines can also become so heavy that entire trees and plants may be uprooted once the bittersweet plant takes over. For these reasons and others, The United States Department of Agriculture has the bittersweet plant listed as a national invasive species. If you are enchanted by the bittersweet vine in autumn, go ahead and enjoy it for what it is, but heed its namesake warning and take care not to aid in the spread of this very deceptive vine.
This post was first published in 2011 and has been updated.