It has been a wonderful fall this year, and perhaps like you I have been trying to take full advantage of it. Fall can be a good time of year to notice certain plants in the landscape, and one of the plants I have been noticing a lot this fall is bittersweet.
Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) is a woody vine that can be found twining up trees and shrubs in woodlands and groves throughout North Dakota. I’ve never thought of it as common (“occasional” maybe), but I’ve discovered that there’s a lot more of it here in the Turtle Mountains than I had realized. I would guess that may be true in other parts of the state as well. Like a lot of things, it seems that after we’ve learned to identify something, we seem to notice it more frequently.
Bittersweet goes largely unnoticed during the summer because it’s buried in with the other green foliage. There isn’t much that would catch your eye. But now the bright orange fruits of bittersweet are much easier to spot.
Although many of the bittersweet leaves have fallen, there are still a few remaining; pale yellow, with perhaps a hint of green. The color is quite distinctive, and because the bittersweet vine typically climbs tall shrubs or trees, the foliage often has a noticeably vertical and/or cascading orientation.
Bittersweet is rather unusual in that it has separate male and female plants (dioecious). If you happen to see a female plant this time of year, the bright yellow-orange fruits, which are about one-half inch in diameter, are quite showy. Upon maturity, the fruits split open in four orange segments revealing a bright red seed (actually several seeds). They are really quite attractive.
Bittersweet is poisonous to humans, but the fruits are eaten by many birds and small mammals. Branches with fruits are occasionally cut for use in fall arrangements, and the plant is occasionally used as an ornamental. If you ever consider planting some bittersweet, be sure to plant several of them. You need to have at least a few male plants to ensure the female plants can produce the bright display of fruits during fall.
Try to spend some time checking the plants around your home area. You may discover some bittersweet nearby, or perhaps find some new plants. Even if you don’t, you will enjoy a bit more of autumn in North Dakota.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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