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Bittersweet Vine | Is the Invasive and Beautiful Plant Friend or Foe?

The Bittersweet vine is known for being destructive and invasive, but is everything about the bittersweet plant bad? Learn more.

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New Englanders know that the autumn blooming bittersweet vine is a catch-22. Loved for its beauty and versatility in autumn decor, the bittersweet plant is also loathed for its invasive and destructive ways.

Bittersweet Vine

The bright flowers and berries of the bittersweet vine

WHAT IS BITTERSWEET?

Bittersweet is an ornamental climbing vine that is native to Eastern Asia. It was brought over to the United States in the 1860s and has been running rampant ever since. Hardy and fast growing 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 bittersweet berries that usually bloom just in time for autumn floral arrangements in the Northeastern part of the United States.

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.

DECORATING WITH BITTERSWEET VINE & BITTERSWEET BERRIES

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.

Bittersweet Vine

Bittersweet vines in bloom

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.

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.

LEARN MORE:
How to Control Invasive Bittersweet
Are Burning Bushes Invasive?
Four Beneficial Weeds Found in New England
Invasive Plants in New England

This post was first published in 2011 and has been updated. 

Comments
  • Jonathan

    Yes, everything about it is bad. Floral arrangements and wreaths can be made with benign plants. If you hang this on your door the seeds will drop and germinate nearby. When you toss the old wreath on your back yard leaf pile it will likely become established nearby. It is next to impossible to eradicate and spreads like the flu.

    Reply
  • I saw a reference to the use of a toxin. Birds eat the berries in large quantities — before using such a product make absolutely sure it won’t poison the birds eating the berries. I would call the Audubon rather than the manufacturer. Also, be sure to pull up the seedlings that sprout from May to September in eastern MA. They are still easy to pull the entire root. At least I can quell the tide of encroaching growth. I pull out what established roots I can — the longest I was ever able to pull was 10′ and who knows how much farther it went. Not only do they travel far but they bifurcate all along the way creating an underground network in all directions. But, any setback one can deal to the plants is a help. I discourage the use of toxins but perhaps in the case of bittersweet it is necessary. If we all pitched in and did some work on it we could make a big difference! I’m going to organize a couple of bittersweet parties this spring where we’ll fan out and then come back together and share a nice potluck meal. Wonderful sense of accomplishment and then fun and fellowship together.

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  • American Bittersweet a native is a beautiful vine that is not invasive,very slow growing and large clusters of berries. If people would ask their Nursery to. order it would become more available. Need one male to every 3 female plants.

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    • Would like to order some but where do I get it. Remember it growing on the island I’m from in Lake Erie. When should it be planted? You said One male to three female plants?

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  • Agree that using or growing oriental bittersweet is completely irresponsible. Adorning fences, gates and even doors offers opportunities for birds to spread the berries, and for the berries to drop onto the ground. Here in Connecticut, it is illegal for florists to sell bittersweet or use it in arrangements. American bittersweet is not invasive, but hard to find.

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  • Here in Lubec it has not become an issue but several years ago I planted both female and male native bittersweet. I was told it would never grow here. Seven years later it is strong and alive. It also has some berries but not quite as profuse.

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  • We have the invasive bittersweet.I try to cut the new vines in early spring.My husband had to use his chainsaw on some of them!We live in northern New Hampshire.

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  • Given how easily this plant spreads by seed to areas that aren’t monitored and tended, it’s completely irresponsible to grow this plant, period. There are areas near me where the forest is entirely engulfed by this vine. When it’s finally pulled down all the trees there will be nothing left but a mass of roiling vine which will stop germination of any other plant.

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  • I have seen what this vine can do. Here in PA it is beginning to overtake some of the trees near an area I was fishing. The vines are 60 to 75 feet or more up into the tall trees. Some spots look like something out of a Tarzan movie, lol. They do make interesting walking sticks, however. I had found one spiraled around a sapling, which had been girdled by it, and had died. I cut it, and made a spiraled walking stick out of it. It is surprisingly strong, about 1 1/8 to 1 1/4 inch in thickness, with many growth rings, and is an instant conversation starter, whenever I go on a hike. I have had it for about 20 years.

    Reply
    • Virginia

      The vine I have is not the Bittersweet variety; but I just want to thank you for confirming what I wanted to do with my vine. I think it is Creeping Myrtle. At first I thought it was a tree twisted by a vine and I cut it and brought it home. Upon further inspection I found it was a vine and was tightly wound around a tiny sapling. It’s leaking sap like mad. I will dry it and see if I can make it into a walking stick. Where it is tightly wound, it looks like a large coiled snake. Thanks for the suggestion. This should be fun!

      Reply
  • Apparently big difference between the invasive oriental bittersweet and that native American bittersweet which is endangered.
    I have the oriental and am trying my best to tear it out everywhere it pops up. Plan to use poison on the survivors this summer as they start to blossom.
    If you have the native species you might consider just managing and constraining it to a fence or trellis etc. It’s supposed to be much less aggressive.

    Reply
  • Noreen

    Ortho Brush-b-Gon, painted on the cut stem. Read the article on line “hunting a colorful enemy in the yard” by Carol Stocker Boston Globe, October 2007

    Reply
  • David

    I made the mistake of letting bittersweet grow on top of a hedge row of diabolo nine bark. The bittersweet has almost smothered the ninebark out. At this point i am not sure i can save the nine bark. At one point is it impossible to save the ninebark. I have learned my lesson on bittersweet. To late in Champaign Illinois.

    Reply
  • Great photos of bittersweet. One of the “old fashioned” plants that my favorite Aunt used to use for decoration in the fall. Heaven help us if we dropped some on the carpet and left stains.

    Reply

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