In Walden, Henry David Thoreau exhorted readers to “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
And while the appeal of fragrant lilac bushes in bloom and freshly mown grass is undeniable, it’s the autumn air I like to breathe best – the damp, earthy smell of fallen leaves, the apples dotting the ground beneath my neighbor’s tree and smoke from wood fires drifting through the air.
Of course, American bittersweet, (Celastrus scandens), is aptly named for this season when everything around us is in a state of melodious decay that makes the morning mist and muted colors at dusk seem romantic and melancholy. Long prized as an ornamental vine for its orange and yellow pods with (poisonous) bright red fruit inside, bittersweet is a vigorous grower whose sprays of berries are often cut to adorn wreaths and tabletops throughout the autumn months.
Not to be confused with invasive Oriental bittersweet, (Celastrus orbiculatus), American bittersweet is native to the Chicago area. Vines are hardy to Zone 3 and easily survive our Midwest winters. They can grow 30 to 40 feet long, with stems twisting and twining around supports – arbors, trellises, even chain-link fences.
If you are planting bittersweet for fall’s dazzling red-orange display, be sure you have both a male and female variety. Pollen from the male vine is essential for pollination of the female flowers, which allows female plants to produce their colorful fruits.
Bittersweet is a robust vine that will thrive in almost any type of soil as long as there is good drainage. It can be susceptible to powdery mildew, euonymus scale and crown gall, but these are all treatable. Performing a heavy pruning in early spring will keep overzealous growth in check and encourage abundant fruiting.
By October, vines should be covered in yellow, orange and red fruits and seeds. Their color often lasts into the winter months as well, providing an attractive contrast to the browns and grays of the late autumn and early winter landscape.
Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. The “Learning to Grow” column runs weekly during warmer months of the year. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information. Feedback on this column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.