American Bittersweet

Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
This American Bittersweet is located outside the 'Whale' an ice rink considered a work of architectural majesty designed by Erno Saarinen. However, the real work of architectural splendor is this tree (a.k.a. Lillian) designed by nature.
Collected Data
Date of tree entry: 
3.10 m
Diameter at breast height: 
0.95 m

The bark of American bittersweet is lightly textured with scattered grayish pores (called lenticels) and older stems are peeling or flaking. But mostly, the bark of an adult tree is thin and smooth.
Twigs & branches
American bittersweet has woody vine up to 30' long that branches occasionally. Young stems are green and hairless and become brown and woody with age. The woody vine climbs fences and vegetation by its twining stems and it also sprawls across the ground. The alternate leaves are up to 4" long and 2" across (excluding their petioles, which are up to 1" long). They are ovate, finely serrated, and hairless; each leaf tapers gradually to a point at its tip.
The American Bittersweet is deciduous, meaning that the leaves are lost seasonally. The plant is a eudicot, indicating that the leaves have branching leaf veins. Leaves are alternate, and about 2 to 4 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide. They are generally oblong-elliptic or sometimes widest above the middle. They are finely serrated around the edges and hairless with a rounded or slightly tapered base. They have a long taper to a sharply pointed tip (acuminate), on a hairless stalk about ¾ inch long. Leaves turn yellow in fall.
Reproductive Structures
The flowers on the American Bittersweet have an inconspicuous smell. Stalked flowers exist in branching clusters up to 6 inches long. Flowers are about ¼ inch across, have five green to whitish petals, and have five green sepals. Male and female flowers on separate plants. Male flowers have 5 stamens with yellow tips. Female flowers have 5 short, non-functioning stamens surrounding a stout style with a lobed stigma at the top. The American Bittersweet generally flowers in May before producing berries.
Fruits are round and about ½ inch in diameter. They are initially green, but the outer casing turns orange to red in summer. It then splits open in fall to reveal the 3-sectioned, bright red, berry-like fruit inside. This berry is technically called an 'aril' and contains the seeds, of which there are usually 2 per section of the aril. Seeds require at least 150 days of cold stratification for germination and must be kept in moist conditions. The seeds are widely distributed by birds, which accounts for the tendency of the species to occur in disturbed habitats. Fruits persist through winter.
  • American Bittersweet in Winter
  • American Bittersweet in Spring
  • American Bittersweet in Summer
  • American Bittersweet in Fall
Natural range of distribution: 
The American Bittersweet is terrestrial. It is mostly found among forest edges, forests, shores of rivers or lakes, talus, and rocky slopes. Although the plant can survive in wetland areas, this is not its preferred habitat. The plant is native to much of the contiguous United States and Canada. But it is found in the following states and provinces: The American bittersweet grows over the eastern two-thirds of the US (except for Florida), on the western edge of the range from Texas and Oklahoma to Wyoming and Montana, and across southeastern Canada from Saskatchewan to New Brunswick. Here is the specific state and province breakdown: USA: AL, AR, CT, DC, DE, GA, IA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, MO, MS, MT, NC, ND, NE, NH, NJ , NY, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, VA, VT, WI, WV, WY Canada: MB, NB, ON QC
Origin, history, and uses: 

The American bittersweet is the only tree from its phylum that is native to North America. The fruits of the tree are poisonous to humans when ingested but are happily consumed by birds. The roots of American bittersweet were used by Native Americans and colonizers to induce vomiting, treat venereal disease, and to treat symptoms of tuberculosis. Native Americans also used it in decorations, and even today it is commonly used in dry flower arrangements and for winter decor. The native American bittersweet is also constantly confused with its invasive relative, Asian bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) which was originally from Korea, Japan, and China. 

American bittersweet are usually dioecious, meaning they have a male and female reproductive organs in separate individuals. Their staminate flowers have five stamens, the pistillate flowers have a single pistil, a superior ovary, and three carpels with two ovules each. A single fruit can have up to six seeds and insects (particularly native bees) pollinate this species. Seeds sit inside the three red fleshy arils surrounded by an orange capsule that breaks with the first frost and birds are largely credited as the dispersers of the seeds. During the winter, their leaves fall off to conserve energy. They flower in late May and then over the season, they produce a cluster of berries that gradually turn from green to yellow to orange. Then late in the fall, the orange covering of the berry splits along three division lines, revealing a scarlet berry inside (unfortunately poison for human ingestion).
Media and Arts

- 11/07/98: Host Brenda Sanders educates viewers about the American Bittersweet.

Hopes for American Bittersweet   
slip away to twine through thickets
loop over fencerows and wind your vines
around sapling trunks that your leaves
may reach toward woodland light
your drooping clusters of fruit draw
birds to dine, dash and disperse
your seeds to increase your numbers
just slip away unseen by decorators
wreath-makers and greedy gatherers
lay your leaves over your berries
and forget to breathe as they pass
be treasured and grown in nurseries
be planted in backyard gardens that
you may flourish once again in the wild

Final Presentation Information

For our final presentation, we have adapted three of Shakespeare’s iconic monologues to fit the American bittersweet as follows. 

First, adapted from Romeo and Juliet:

O American Bittersweet, American Bittersweet, wherefore art thou American Bittersweet?

Deny thy branch and refuse thy trunk.

Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love

And I’ll no longer be a human.

‘Tis but thy tree-ness that is my enemy:

Thou art thyself, though not just a Tree.

What’s Tree? It is nor branch nor bark

Nor trunk nor leaf nor any other part

Belonging to a tree. O be some other name.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So American Bittersweet would, were he not American Bittersweet call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. American Bittersweet, doff thy name,

And for that name, which is no part of thee,

Take all mytree.

Second, adapted from As You Like It

All the world’s a garden,

And all the trees and plants merely players:

They have their hibernations and their spouts;

And one tree in his time plays many parts,

The tree acts being seven ages. At first the seed,

Mewling and puking in the ground.

And then the whining sprout, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the sapling,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a solid oak,

Full of strange bark and bearded with leaves,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the fall foliage,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and leaves of amber yellow,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the withered winter branches,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his trunk shrank; and his big leaves gone,

Turning again towards sapling, then sead

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans branches, sans bark, sans leaves, sans everything.

And third, adapted from Hamlet:

To tree, or not to tree, that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of climate change,

Or to take arms against a sea of carbon dioxide

And by opposing oxygenate. To wither—to sleep,

No more; and by a wither to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand burnt trees 

That bark is heir to: ‘tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To wither, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to bloom—ay, there’s the rub:

For in that sleep of withering what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal soil,

Must give us pause—there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

For who would bear the winds and suns of time.