The genus Celastrus Linnaeus and Celastrus scandens Linnaeus

Remark The words or terms in red (actually dark orange) in the text are defined in a glossary.

The genus Celastrus Linnaeus

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The Celastrus genus comprise about 50 species of shrubs and vines. They have a wide distribution in East Asia, Australasia, Africa and the Americas.

The leaves are alternate and simple. The flowers are small, white, pink or greenish, and borne in long panicles; the fruits are a red berries with 3 valves; they are eaten by frugivorous birds, which disperse the seeds in their droppings. All parts of the plants are poisonous to humans if eaten.

In North America, the plant belonging to the Celastrus genus are known as bittersweet, presumably a result of confusion with the unrelated Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) by early colonists. Three species of the Celastrus genus are found in North America but only one is found in Québec: Celastrus scandens (photography at right).

The Celastrus genus is the type genus of the Celastraceae family and belongs then to this family.

Celastrus scandens Linnaeus

Celastrus scandens is a woody, sturdy, perennial and deciduous climbing vine that is moderately slow-growing. It is native to central and eastern North America. It is rhizomatous and thickets forming. Its woody roots can be up to 2 cm thick and are yellow to orange. Its woody stems can reach up to 10 m or longer and be an inch or more thick at the base. The stems are yellowish-green to brown and wind around other vegetation, sometimes killing saplings by wrapping tightly around them and restricting further growth. The plant is known for its showy red berries that brighten up fall and winter landscapes.

The species number of chromosome (n) is 23.


The Celastrus name comes form the classical Greek κηλαστρα or (kêlastra) κηλαστρον or (kêlastron) κηλαστροσ (kêlastros), a word used by Theophrastus, (370 - 285 BC), the successor of Aristotle in the Peripatetic school of Athens, in his Enquiry into Plants, and, depending on the sources, a word identified as a Mediterranean evergreen tree, probably in the genus Phillyrea or as a shrub of the Rhamnus genus.

In Latin, the verb scandere, of present participle scandens means to go up, to climb and is a quite appropriate epithet for Celastrus scandens.

Common names

Some of the vernacular names of Celastrus scandens are American Bittersweet, Climbing Bittersweet, False Bittersweet, Climbing Orangeroot, Yellow-root, Fevertwig, Fever-twitch, Staffvine, Staff-tree, Climbing Staff-tree, Waxwork, Roxbury Waxwork and Jacob's Ladder.

The French common name is Bourreau des arbres since it can girdle and kill live plants used for support.


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Celastrus scandens is trivial to identify: Celastrus scandens is similar to Celastrus orbiculatus; the later, not yet, present in Québec, is native to Eastern Asia, Korea, China and Japan; it has been introduced in North America where it is displacing Celastrus scandens through competition and hybridization, in the northeastern States of the USA. The main differences between the two species are: Hybrids of the two species may make identification more difficult.




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The fruits are persistent through the winter and showy, therefore used for ornamental purposes.


Celastrus scandens grows in a wide variety of habitats; it is typically found in woodland areas, thickets, rocky slopes, bluffs, glade peripheries and along fence rows. It is often seen growing along the ground, over and through low shrubs or circling trees in the wild.


Celastrus scandens is found most of the United States, except Florida and the Western States of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington. It is also found in Canada from Manitoba, New Brunswick and Québec. It in however an endangered in Saskatchewan because it is extremely rare and is highly regionally restricted in the province.

The map shows the Canadian Provinces (but for Saskatchewan) and the USA states where Celastrus scandens can be found.

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Celastrus scandens is being replaced in the northeast of the USA by the more aggressive Celastrus orbiculatus which has escaped from cultivation.

Fruits are eaten by small mammals and birds, including Turdus migratorius (American Robin or North American Robin), Colinus virginianus (the Northern Bobwhite or Virginia Quail) Meleagris gallopavo (the Wild Turkey), Sialia sialis (the Eastern Bluebird) Dumetella carolinensis (the Gray Catbird) and Sciurus carolinensis (the Eastern Gray Squirrel), Rabbits eat leaves and twigs. Celastrus orbiculatus depends on animals to eat the fruits and poop out the seeds in new places. This lets the plant spread its seeds to grow new plants.

Berry-laden branches are prized for use as indoor decorations, and collection of the branches in the wild has significantly reduced the wild populations in some areas.

All parts of Celastrus scandens including seeds have a low toxicity if eaten; the symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, loss of conciousness. It was used in many ways by American Aboriginals as a medicinal cure, but is now hardly ever used.

The root of Celastrus scandens is diaphoretic, diuretic and emetic. It has been used to treat liver cancer and skin ailments. The bark can be made into an ointment to place on burns, scrapes and skin eruptions. The plant is also of interest because many species in the Celastrus genus contain compounds which may have antitumor effects.

The American native tribes used frequently the plant for its medicinal properties. The Cherokees used it as an analgesic making a strong compound infusion to help in the pain of childbirth; they chewed the root against cough; they made a decoction of the highly astringent leaves for bowel complaint; The Chippewas boiled the roots as an ointment for cancer and for any obstinate sore; the used the roots in decoction as a cathartic for babies. The Creeks women with urinary trouble or pain in the back used the plant to cure the problems. The Delawares made a poultice or salve of roots and used it for skin eruptions; the made a infusion of roots to clear up liver spots and as a tuberculosis remedy.

The Iroquois young girls that caught cold or didn't menstruate took a decoction of roots; the women took a infusion of leaves and stems as a regulator; they also drank and infusion of leaves for fever and soreness from pregnancy; an infusion of root bark with another plant and wine was taken for anemia; an infusion of leaves and stems was taken as a diuretic; a decoction of roots was used as wash on lips or gums of teething children; The Meskwakis used a compound containing root for the relief of women in labor. The Oglalas, although they considered the plant poisonous, used the fruits for stomach trouble. The Menominees, Potawatomis and Ojibwas used the inner bark as food when food was hard to get or unobtainable in the winter. The Lakotas chewed the roots and smeared them on the body to be impervious to wounding.


The photos of the gallery were taken either with one of the following: Minolta DiMAGE 7, Canon PowerShot A530, Canon Xt Rebel, usually with the EF-S60mm f/2.8 Macro USM objective, Fujifilm A 610 and EPSON Perfection 1650 (scanner).

The title in the window shows the date when the picture was taken, i.e. jan_30_06... would mean that the photo was taken on the 30th of January, the 06 is for the 6th picture taken that day. The month, day and picture number might be followed by a letter which I use to identify the system used to take the picture.

Click on the thumbnails to get larger view. The original photos are usually in TIFF format, the photos shown are generally in JPEG format, often of dimensions one half (surface one quarter) for loading time reduction.


Plants with unripe fruits, young stem, plants with fruits in the fall, twig with buds in winter.

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Inflorescences, flowers

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Fruits along the seasons, seeds

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