American Bittersweet – Celastrus scandens

Winter American Bittersweet
Winter American Bittersweet

The winter bittersweet shows as a tangle of vines with bright orange-red berries with what appears to be a cap of yellow. The fruit sits on the vine through much of the winter proving to be a survival food in late winter for songbirds, ruffed grouse, pheasants, bobwhite, and squirrels. The white tailed deer, and cotton tailed rabbits also find the foliage and stems very tasty.

King’s American Dispensatory reveals how Celastrus scandens came to be thought of as bitter-sweet, remarking that “The bark has a bitter, afterward sweetish, rather nauseous taste.” This taste may reveal the fact that all parts of the plant is poisonous, but especially the seeds. It was known to “Clean you out at both ends.’… describes most of the symptoms of poisoning, which are vomiting, diarrhea and eventual loss of consciousness.

Even with the toxicity the inner bark was at one time used as starvation food. In medicinal use the Native American tribes used the bark externally in an ointment for the treatment of burns, scrapes, and skin eruptions. The root is diaphoretic, diuretic, and emetic. Although rarely used in modern times it was used for the treatment of chronic liver and skin conditions, rheumatism, leucorrhea, dysentery and suppressed menses.

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