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Bittersweet Vine | Is the Invasive and Beautiful Plant Friend or Foe?

Bittersweet Vine | Is the Invasive and Beautiful Plant Friend or Foe?
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Bittersweet vines are known for being a destructive and invasive plant, but is everything about them bad?

Bittersweet Vine
Bittersweet vines in bloom

New Englanders know that the autumn blooming bittersweet vine is a catch-22. Loved for its beauty and versatility, yet loathed for its invasive and destructive ways. Bittersweet is an ornamental climbing vine that is native to Eastern Asia. It was brought over to the United States in the 1860’s and has been running rampant ever since. Hardy, fast growing and visually interesting, the vines of the bittersweet plant mirror the warm colors of autumn upon reaching maturation. Reddish-brown creeping stems and leaves support clusters of tiny yellow flowers and orange berries that usually bloom just in time for autumn floral arrangements in the Northeastern part of the United States.

Bittersweet vines are not only eye catching, they are also versatile and pliable. They are easily bent to conform to almost any shape, allowing them to be effortlessly added to existing floral arrangements and wreaths as an accent, or to be used alone in construction of a free form autumn wreath. A sweet handmade heart shaped bittersweet wreath on the door or on a fence showcases the colors of the season with understated elegance. The vines also look festive grouped in a vase or urn. They are best suited for cooler indoor rooms or for outside display as the flowers and berries will fall off when exposed to warmer indoor temperatures, and they can stain clothing and flooring.

Bittersweet Vine The bright flowers and berries of the bittersweet vine

To incorporate bittersweet berries into your fall décor, begin by cutting the vines while the berries are still green if possible, and form them into wreaths immediately. If you wait until the flowers and berries are in bloom, the flowers and fruits may drop off while you arrange the wreath.

Bittersweet is easily located all over New England as it has grown wildly out of control on roadsides, and can even be seen engulfing abandoned buildings in some areas. If you reside in North America, there is a high probability that you have a bittersweet source very close by. A word of caution — when left unregulated, established bittersweet vines will literally take over the landscape, smothering out native species of trees, shrubs and plantings. The tangled vines can also become so heavy that entire trees and plants may be uprooted once the bittersweet plant takes over. For these reasons and others, The United States Department of Agriculture has the bittersweet plant listed as a national invasive species. If you are enchanted by the bittersweet vine in autumn, go ahead and enjoy it for what it is, but heed its namesake warning and take care not to aid in the spread of this very deceptive vine.

If you enjoyed this article, check out these related posts:
How to Control Invasive Bittersweet
Are Burning Bushes Invasive?
Four Beneficial Weeds Found in New England

Shelley Wigglesworth


Shelley Wigglesworth


Shelley (Fleming) Wigglesworth is an award-winning freelance journalist from Maine specializing in maritime topics and the commercial fishing industry. She is also a certified Maine Master Gardener who writes gardening articles on a regular basis for Yankee Magazine. Her work can be found in the following publications: The York County Coast Star, Portsmouth Herald, Bangor Daily News, Yankee Magazine (online), National Fisherman Magazine, Commercial Fisheries News, Tourist News, Points East Magazine, Coastal Angler and The Maine Lobstermen's Association’s “Landings.” Follow Shelley on Facebook.
Updated Monday, October 31st, 2011

9 Responses to Bittersweet Vine | Is the Invasive and Beautiful Plant Friend or Foe?

  1. SANDRA JONES October 31, 2011 at 9:31 pm #

    Great photos of bittersweet. One of the “old fashioned” plants that my favorite Aunt used to use for decoration in the fall. Heaven help us if we dropped some on the carpet and left stains.

    • Shelley Wigglesworth November 1, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

      Thanks for sharing Sandra!

  2. David Quigg May 19, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

    I made the mistake of letting bittersweet grow on top of a hedge row of diabolo nine bark. The bittersweet has almost smothered the ninebark out. At this point i am not sure i can save the nine bark. At one point is it impossible to save the ninebark. I have learned my lesson on bittersweet. To late in Champaign Illinois.

  3. C. Bagwell February 4, 2015 at 11:41 pm #

    Is there any way to get rid of this awful vine. It is taking over. Thanks

  4. Noreen W. May 18, 2015 at 11:43 am #

    Ortho Brush-b-Gon, painted on the cut stem. Read the article on line “hunting a colorful enemy in the yard” by Carol Stocker Boston Globe, October 2007

  5. paul gardner May 26, 2015 at 9:52 am #

    Apparently big difference between the invasive oriental bittersweet and that native American bittersweet which is endangered.
    I have the oriental and am trying my best to tear it out everywhere it pops up. Plan to use poison on the survivors this summer as they start to blossom.
    If you have the native species you might consider just managing and constraining it to a fence or trellis etc. It’s supposed to be much less aggressive.

  6. Mark Schreader May 27, 2015 at 1:16 am #

    I have seen what this vine can do. Here in PA it is beginning to overtake some of the trees near an area I was fishing. The vines are 60 to 75 feet or more up into the tall trees. Some spots look like something out of a Tarzan movie, lol. They do make interesting walking sticks, however. I had found one spiraled around a sapling, which had been girdled by it, and had died. I cut it, and made a spiraled walking stick out of it. It is surprisingly strong, about 1 1/8 to 1 1/4 inch in thickness, with many growth rings, and is an instant conversation starter, whenever I go on a hike. I have had it for about 20 years.

  7. Randi Hansen June 22, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

    Given how easily this plant spreads by seed to areas that aren’t monitored and tended, it’s completely irresponsible to grow this plant, period. There are areas near me where the forest is entirely engulfed by this vine. When it’s finally pulled down all the trees there will be nothing left but a mass of roiling vine which will stop germination of any other plant.

  8. joann lafontaine June 26, 2015 at 10:23 am #

    We have the invasive bittersweet.I try to cut the new vines in early spring.My husband had to use his chainsaw on some of them!We live in northern New Hampshire.

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