Celastrus scandens (American Bittersweet)

Plant Info
Also known as: Climbing Bittersweet
Family:Celastraceae (Staff-tree)
Life cycle:perennial woody
Habitat:part shade, sun; woodland edges, thickets, fields, prairies
Bloom season:May - June
Plant height:to 30-foot vine
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: UPL MW: FACU NCNE: FACU
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

Pick an image for a larger view. See the glossary for icon descriptions.

Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: 5-petals Cluster type: panicle

[photo of male flowers] Branching cluster to 6 inches long of stalked flowers, forming at the tip of this year's side branches of older woody stems. Flowers are about ¼ inch across, have 5 green to whitish petals and 5 green sepals, with male and female flowers on separate plants. Male flowers have 5 stamens with yellow tips.

[photo of female flowers] Female flowers have 5 short, non-functioning stamens surrounding a stout style with a lobed stigma at the top.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are alternate, 2 to 4 inches long and about half as wide, generally oblong-elliptic or sometimes widest above the middle, finely serrated around the edges, hairless, rounded or slightly tapered at the base, often with a long taper to the sharply pointed tip (acuminate), on a hairless stalk about ¾ inch long. Leaves turn yellow in fall.

[photo of twining stem] New stems are green becoming gray-brown and woody with age, the bark lightly textured with scattered grayish pores (lenticels), and peeling or flaking on older stems. The trunk can grow to 2½ inches in diameter. Stems loosely twine around trees and other structures for support, but as a supporting tree expands the vine does not loosen its grip, which can constrict the expansion of the tree but not usually kill it. In more open areas plants sprawl across the ground and become more shrub-like.

Fruit: Fruit type: berry/drupe Fruit type: capsule/pod

[photo of fruit] Fruit is round, about ½ inch in diameter, initially green, the outer casing turning orange to red in late summer, splitting open in fall to reveal the 3-sectioned, bright red, berry-like fruit inside. Fruits persist through winter.


Similar is Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), a highly invasive species that is a relative newcomer to Minnesota. It is most easily distinguished while flowering (C. orbiculatus flowers are in the leaf axils) or fruiting (fruits have yellow casings); see the Oriental Bittersweet page for more detail and comparative images. Buyer beware: American Bittersweet is available in the nursery trade and some vendors advertise selling it, but it turns out to be Oriental Bittersweet instead. This isn't necessarily intentional, but just shows that those selling it can't always tell the difference, either. Know your source!

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken in Anoka county. Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Anoka and Big Stone counties.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Jason - Blue Earth County
on: 2013-07-26 23:29:52

Williams Nature Preserve

Posted by: Laura - Pine River, Arrowhead Lake of the Whitefish Chain
on: 2014-09-03 13:29:39

I have seen bittersweet on the narrows between Upper and Lower Whitefish Lakes. I often find it growing on Butternut trees.

Posted by: Jessica - Silver Lake, McLeod County
on: 2018-08-17 09:10:01

Just came across the orange berries of the bittersweet on the edge of a field. Love seeing all the information here to help me identify it.

Posted by: Erin Wilaby - Blanket Flower SNA
on: 2019-11-20 10:15:10

Found at Blanket Flower SNA in a pocket of trees in the prairie

Posted by: John Valo - Burnsville
on: 2020-05-20 05:41:04

I found this in Kasota Prairie in Le Sueur County yesterday. The leaves were just starting. Your photo on the oriental bittersweet page (6 of 11) clinched the ID. The youngest unfolding leaf had rolled edges. Thanks for including comparison photos like that.

Posted by: Jana Salinger - Minneapolis
on: 2020-06-09 14:50:07

I planted an American bittersweet 10 years ago in a very shady area. I have cut it back to approximately 7ft on several occasions to keep it from rambling . This year It is forming flowers for the first time. It is about 10ft and has a single base trunk about 3/4 inch diameter and one bifurcation at 4ft. Can this specimen be moved to a more sunny location or should I try to tuteur it in place? Thanks in advance for any info.

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2020-06-10 12:05:34

Jana, in the wild I've seen bittersweet growing in both sunny and shady locations, though it may be more vigorous with more sun. It might also prove to require a lot more maintenance to keep it in check.

Posted by: Claire Grubich - Shoreview hwy 96 & Churchill
on: 2021-07-29 13:40:52

vine is fast growing in a flower garden locating on north side it has full sun we cut it back to nothing when we began tending this neglected (?3 yrs) plot of mixed soils in 2019

Posted by: Patty - Howard lake
on: 2022-09-10 08:34:03

I planted 10 American Bittersweet approximately 5 years ago. I want to trim and sell to Garden centers. When can I start pruning this fall? It is still a bit yellowish. Last year I waited until some berries had popped but then my Garden centers said it was a little late to sell... I guess information on how would be helpful also... So how and when? Thank you for your time

Posted by: K Chayka
on: 2022-09-10 10:15:34

Patty, Minnesota Wildflowers does not have any expertise on propagating this species.

Posted by: Linda Wagner - Douglas County MN
on: 2022-10-04 14:31:45

I just found American Bittersweet growing on a south-facing, partially shaded hillside on the shore of Lake Carlos. It is mostly intertwined with a stand of sumac. Thank you for the help identifying these pretty berries!

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