Celastrus scandens L.

American Bittersweet

Celastrus scandens plant

Family - Celastraceae

Habit - Liana, perennial, sometimes incompletely or completely dioecious.

Stem - Stems to 20 m, twining on other vegetation. circular in cross section. Bark light gray.

Leaves - Alternate, simple, petiolate. Blades generally elliptic or obovate, margins bluntly toothed, glabrous. Upper surface dark green, lower surface lighter.


Celastrus_scandens_leaf2Leaf abaxial.

Inflorescences - Terminal clusters of 12-40 flowers.


Flowers - Flowers usually imperfect. Sepals 5, 1.0-1.5 mm long. Petals 5, 3-4 mm long, 1.0-1.5 mm wide, narrowly oblong, rounded at the tip, greenish white. Staminate flowers with 5 stamens, the filaments 1.5-2.0 mm long. Pistillate flowers with minute staminodes, the ovary usually with 3 locules and 2 ovules per locule. Style short, stout, the stigma deeply 3-lobed.




Fruits - Fruits roughly globse, 8-10 mm in diameter, 3-lobed, dehiscent by 3 valves, these with the outer surface orange at maturity, the inner surface pale yellow to nearly white.

Celastrus_scandens_fruits2Fruits in terminal clusters.


Flowering - May - June.

Habitat - Bottomland and mesic forests, bluffs, marginal areas of prairies and glades.

Origin - Native to the U.S.

Lookalikes - Celastrus orbiculatus.

Other info. - This is the only species of Celastrus which is native to North America. It can be distinguished from the exotic C. orbiculatus by its narrower leaves, terminal inflorescences, and orange (rather than yellow) fruit valves at dehiscence. It is found scattered throughout most of Missouri. Across the U.S. it is mostly found in the north and east, and is entirely absent from several western states.

The fruits and bright red arilate seeds are visually attractive to both humans and birds, though poisonous to humans. The plant was given the name "bittersweet" by 18th century American colonists, to whom the fruits resembled those of common nightshade, Solanum dulcamara, which was also called bittersweet.

Photographs taken at St. Joe State Park, St. Francois County, MO, 5-13-2015; at Valley View Glade Natural Area, Jefferson County, MO, 5-8-2017; and at Klondike County Park, St. Charles County, MO, 11-30-2013 (SRTurner).