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Autumnal Wreaths Gone Wrong

Friends don’t let friends decorate with Bittersweet

Normally a champion for natives, Martha Stewart Living still promotes this wreath project. Photos from
Invasive Oriental bittersweet fruits.
Oriental bittersweet infestation. Photo courtesy of Bugwood.
Native winterberry in all its glory. Photo courtesy of
Native Virginia creeper in fall colors.

The natural beauty of Nantucket is an endless source of decorating inspiration. The fall finds many people turning to the local flora as the colors change from the bright greens of summer to the fiery tones of fall. One popular plant used for display is the non-native invasive species Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Prized for its fall fruits which are an orange-red flesh surrounded by a yellow husk, these woody vines have been used for decades to make wreaths adorning front doors from Town to Siasconset. While I am generally all for pulling invasive plants, the use of invasives in wreaths and window boxes is helping, rather than hindering, the spread of these plants.

Oriental bittersweet is primarily used in such displays when it is in fruit as the leaves have turned yellow and fallen away. These fruits are beautiful, but also contain viable seeds. If you’re using about 3 feet of vine for a wreath, there are, on average, 200 berries. Each yellow husk opens to have 3 red segments with one seed each. At a germination rate of up to 95% (more if in a shadey spot) for each wreath there is the potential to grow 570 or more seedlings. While this is a crude estimation, the idea is that one wreath can cause more damage to the environment and your own yard, than you think. On your front door the fruit may seem innocuous, but migrating birds passing through see these as a power snack thus transporting the seeds even further.

Oriental bittersweet is a vigorous invader that threatens native vegetation from the ground to the canopy. Thick masses of vines sprawl over shrubs, small trees, and other plants, producing dense shade that weakens and kills them. Native shrubs and trees can be killed by girdling and by uprooting as a result of excessive weight of the vines. In Massachusetts, Oriental bittersweet appears to be displacing the native American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) through competition and hybridization. American bittersweet was recently listed as threatened by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

Despite the fact that many people know and avoid the planting and spread of Oriental bittersweet, its use is still popular around this time every year. Just take a gander at Pinterest. I make my annual pilgrimage to the Martha Stewart website and ask that the “How to” for bittersweet wreaths be taken down. It’s still there.

So, please, do not buy, transport, pick, or decorate with this noxious weed. If you need a few more reasons, check out this older post. Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is a beautiful native plant that can make a good alternative to the invasive bittersweet in centerpieces at Thanksgiving. Try planting Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) for a wonderful show of fall red leaves. But remember: Friends don’t let friends decorate with Oriental bittersweet.

Please share your fall decorating alternatives below!