Plants - Vines and Groundcovers

Bittersweet berries for fall

Lorraine Hunter

Properly sited, this exuberant vine brings privacy, shade and welcome fall colour to the garden

When planted against a fence or trellis, bittersweet (Celastrus spp.), a fast-growing, twining, perennial vine, will turn a deck, porch or patio into a shady, private nook in no time. Mostly hardy to Zone 3, its showy, long-lasting, orange-red berries, often used in dried arrangements and wreaths, are an added bonus, and are especially appreciated by birds in winter.

Although this vine has a tendency to be rambunctious, it can be kept in check. After installing a bench at the far end of my yard, I realized that the long, bare, brick wall of the house it faced needed something to break up its wide expanse. The American bittersweet (C. scandens) I planted against a trellis now provides a handsome focal point.

American bittersweet, a native plant, and oriental bittersweet (C. orbicu-latus) are the most commonly grown ornamental species. Another lesser known, more tender type (Zone 4) is the Chinese or Loesener bittersweet (C. rosthornianus), but it’s not available in Canada.

The average height of American bittersweet is seven metres, and it climbs by means of twining stems that grow vertically or sprawl horizontally over fences, arbours and other structures. It thrives in almost any types of soil except boggy ones. The plant has narrow, egg-shaped, green leaves with yellow fall colour and produces small, greenish flowers in late spring, followed by fruit capsules that open in early autumn to expose showy, fiery-coloured berries. The fruit are clustered at the tips of its stems.

Oriental bittersweet is similar to American but grows even more vigorously—from nine to 12 metres tall—and should be sited with care, as it can become very invasive. Imported in the 1860s from Korea, China and Japan, oriental bittersweet reproduces prolifically by seed; it also spreads by above-ground stolons and underground rhizomes, and through root suckering. Its leaves are rounded and the fruit looks similar to the American type, but the berries are brighter in colour and borne in smaller lateral clusters along its stems. The leaves turn yellow in fall.

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