Oriental bittersweet growing along the fence row at Smithfield Plantation

Bittersweet. Fall is rushing toward closure, and with it– the leaves are falling from the sky and stacking up like piles of newspaper around me. If you listen, you can hear it. The change of seasons: bittersweet. Fall is at once beautiful and melancholy…  the mesmerizing glory of scarlet leaves against a clear blue sky…the ominous crunch of dry brown leaves underfoot. It’s almost over. It’s bittersweet.

In the Sunday air, a note of winter. Bundled under layers, I walk our dog along farm fence rows, looking earnestly for the last doses of color on the landscape. It could be hiding anywhere. A stray pink knapweed here, a gallant goldenrod still holding up there..a fading fall aster hidden beneath a bush. But for the most part, the spectacle of virginia wildflowers is over for another season, and I’m sad to see it go.

Maybe it’s in my desperation, or maybe it is the way that the late afternoon light can turn ordinary things into extraordinary delights, but suddenly my hungry eyes are appeased by the sight of bittersweet growing along a fence. It is covering the fence completely in some places, and climbing over trees and shrubs in others. And now that I see it, it is everywhere. The vine is saturated with orange-red seeds that are surrounded by deep yellow pods. The attractive fruit literally glimmers in the late afternoon sun. I have to forget for just a moment that this beautiful spectacle is compliments of a terribly invasive plant. I have to forget, because it is SO beautiful.

Like its name, bittersweet is a bit of a blessing and a curse: the colorful, fall fruit of this vine is a favorite food of birds and small mammals. But because of this, bittersweet seeds are spread far and wide by animal droppings. This seed dispersal strategy turns out to be a strong factor in why the plant is such a successful invader. The seed germinates easily, and the aggressive vine can (and does!) crowd out native plants by forming thickets or climbing up and strangling its host.

Bittersweet leaf
Bittersweet leaf

This time of year, it is relatively easy to identify bittersweet. The fruits turn yellow at the end of the summer.  When the seed pods finally begin to open in October, the red “berries” are exposed.  At any distance, the red and yellow fruits are quite distinctive in the fall. Be aware however: this species is dioecious, so the male plants do not bear fruit. That’s when it could be useful to recognize the leaves instead. Unfortunately, they are quite variable in shape and size.  The leaves can be round or oblong, and the tips can taper to a point. The leaf margin is slightly toothed, and sizes vary from 2 to 5 inches. Click on any photo below to explore the gallery.

Finally, there is a native form of bittersweet in North America called American bittersweet, or Celastrus scandens. The introduced species is known as Oriental bittersweet, or Celastrus orbiculatus. They can be hard to tell apart, but the native plant has fruit at the tips of the vines only, while the invasive form bears fruit all along the branches.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. pat says:

    i have always enjoyed looking at bittersweet in the fall and until now have never thought about its name and the turn of the seasons.

  2. gloria says:

    It is probably just me that has that association in mind. I dread the coming of winter, and although the fall is a beautiful season, it constantly reminds me that winter is on the way. It is truly bittersweet. 🙂

  3. patteecee says:

    Gloria, I so enjoy your posts and your photos are beautiful. Many thanks for the help identifying plants you have given me as I wander the trails! Do you ever publish your writings–certainly worthy of a wider audience. Fall is my favorite season, and while, as you point out, the color of blooms is waning, there is a special magic in the forests at this time. My walk on Big Sunny trail here in Roanoke–short, but sweet–on Sunday felt special. The brilliance of the blue sky was more evident, partly because it is more open to view as the leaves fall, and because of the contrast with the yellows/reds/oranges that are present. It certainly is a bittersweet time of year.

    As ever, “Happy Trails.”

  4. Anne says:

    Gloria, your writing is just amazing. The description and essence of the plant’s life just flow in your words. Mom adored bittersweet and loved to use it in arrangements.

    1. gloria says:

      you’re so sweet. glad to know that Helen loved this plant–that’s important to me. thanks, anne!

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