It’s amazing that the details of the introduction of one of eastern North America’s worst invasive plants, Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus Thunb.), are essentially unknown. According to Alfred Rehder in his seminal Manual of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs (1927) the vine was introduced into cultivation from Asia in 1860, but he offered no specific details about who the responsible party was. Since then, most authors have simply taken Rehder at his word and repeated the 1860 date without question (or attribution). More recently, some botanists have cited 1879 as the date of introduction of Oriental bittersweet into North America based on an 1890 article by Charles S. Sargent, but again with only minimal details. The purpose of this article is to fill in this void in the early history of the plant, especially now that it has become such a ubiquitous—and highly destructive—member of our flora.
A Brief History of Oriental Bittersweet
The first species of Celastrus to be described was the American or climbing bittersweet (also called waxwork or stafftree), native to eastern North America, and named C. scandens by Linnaeus in 1753. The second was Oriental bittersweet, C. orbiculatus, native to Japan, Korea, and China and originally published in 1784 by Linnaeus’s student, Carl Peter Thunberg, in his ground-breaking Flora Japonica under the name Celastrus articulatus. Some ninety-seven years later, the Russian botanist Carl Maximowicz pointed out that this name was actually a misprint of Celastrus orbiculatus, Thunberg’s intended name, which he used in the index of Flora Japonica as well as in the original manuscript pages of the book. It took years of back and forth debate among botanists to straighten out the confusion caused by this simple typographical error, but C. orbiculatus is now universally accepted as the correct scientific name for Oriental bittersweet.
In Flora Japonica Thunberg also described a second Japanese species of bittersweet, C. punctatus, with smaller, more ovate leaves than C. orbiculatus, a different pedicel (flower stalk) structure, and rough white lenticels on its stems. Shortly after this plant entered cultivation in the mid- to late 1800s, it too became engulfed in a taxonomic debate, specifically as to whether it was a “good” species or just a variety of orbiculatus. Alfred Rehder, writing in L. H. Bailey’s massive Cyclopedia of American Horticulture (1900), officially reduced C. punctatus to a variety of C. orbiculatus, with shorter petioles and smaller, thicker, elliptic leaves. This reduction in status was widely accepted in botanical publications for many years, most notably in the English version of Jisaburo Ohwi’s Flora of Japan (1965), which described variety punctatus as “a southern phase, abundant usually near seashores, although transitional with the typical phase [orbiculatus].”
The traditional view of Oriental bittersweet taxonomy underwent a change in 1955 when Ding Hou, a freshly minted Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, published his revision of the genus Celastrus in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Hou reviewed the tortured history of Thunberg’s two bittersweets and concluded they were both valid species. He also reviewed the taxonomy of the two Celastrus species described and illustrated in 1860 by Eduard von Regel, the Director of the St. Petersburg Botanical Garden: one was a “new” species that he christened C. crispulus, the other was Thunberg’s species, C. punctatus. Writing in Plantae Wilsonianae in 1915, Alfred Rehder had expressed the opinion that both of Regel’s plants belonged to the species C. orbiculatus—crispulus was a synonym and punctatus a variety—a determination that formed the basis for his citing 1860 as the date of Oriental bittersweet’s introduction into cultivation. Ding Hou looked at the same article and reached a very different conclusion—Regel’s crispulus was synonymous with Thunberg’s punctatus and his punctatus was really Thunberg’s orbiculatus. According to Hou’s interpretation, Rehder was right about 1860 as the date for the introduction of Celastrus orbiculatus, but wrong about which of Regel’s two species was the true Oriental bittersweet.
In the years following its publication, Ding Hou’s revision of the genus Celastrus has stood the test of time. The current online Flora of Japan Database Project, for example, treats C. punctatus as a semi-evergreen species native to the warm-temperate or subtropical parts of the country, while the deciduous species C. orbiculatus is found in more northerly cool- and warm-temperate zones. Similarly, the English version of the Flora of China, which describes twenty-five species of Celastrus, includes both C. orbiculatus and C. punctatus. The former is widely distributed in the eastern and northeastern parts of the country, mainly north of the Yangtze River, while the latter is restricted to southeast China and Taiwan.
Introduction into Europe
Eduard von Regel’s 1860 Gartenflora article is significant for three reasons: 1) it is the first report of the cultivation of Oriental bittersweet outside of Asia; 2) it contains the first scientific illustrations of both Celastrus orbiculatus and C. punctatus; and 3) it unequivocally states that C. punctatus (= C. orbiculatus according to Hou) had “only recently been imported” into European gardens by the famous naturalist Philipp von Siebold.
Siebold is an important and colorful figure in the early history of European involvement in Japan. His spectacularly illustrated Flora Japonica—co-authored with Joseph Zuccharini and published in thirty volumes between 1835 and 1870—is a botanical landmark. Siebold was a Bavarian physician who spent six years (1823 through 1829) in Japan working for the Dutch government, teaching and practicing medicine, and making a significant collection of Japanese flora and fauna. His sojourn ended when he was imprisoned for political reasons (the unauthorized possession of a strategically important map of Japan) and forced to return to Holland in 1830. He did, however, manage to leave with a boatload of herbarium specimens and living plants, which he cultivated in his garden in Leiden. Siebold managed to return to Japan in August 1859 but was forced to leave in 1862. Again, he returned to Leiden with a collection of Japanese plants that he added to the “Jardin D’Acclimatation,” which he had established in the 1830s (Spongberg 1990). He published a nursery catalogue for the garden in 1863 that listed an astounding 838 species and varieties of plants for sale, mainly from Japan and China. Included among the entries was “Celastrus punctatus Thbg.” at the price of 1 or 2 francs, presumably depending on the plant’s size. Based on this catalogue listing and on Regel’s article from 1860, we can now say that Siebold probably collected seeds of C. orbiculatus (which he called C. punctatus) in the fall of 1859—at the start of his second visit to Japan—and sent them to colleagues in Europe for cultivation. Siebold’s 1863 nursery catalogue listing appears to be the first recorded public offering of C. orbiculatus outside of Asia.
Introduction into North America
On the other side of the Atlantic, Oriental bittersweet made its horticultural debut in the Kissena Nurseries catalogue first published in 1886 or 1887. The Kissena Nurseries were established by Samuel B. Parsons in 1871 as the successor to the earlier nursery he had established with his brother Robert in 1840 in Flushing, New York. The nursery specialized in ornamental trees and shrubs and was the first nursery in the United States to introduce Japanese maples into commerce and to propagate and distribute hardy evergreen rhododendrons (Meehan 1887). The Arnold Arboretum library has two virtually identical copies of the Kissena Nurseries “Descriptive Catalogue of Hardy Ornamental Trees, Flowering Shrubs and Vines.” One of them has “1887?” penciled on it while the other is marked “Probably issued Spring, 1889.” Both of the catalogues are 94 pages long and both include the identical entry for Oriental bittersweet on page 53: “Celastrus punctatus, Japan. Leaves marked with points of white. 75 cts.”. (This reference to “points of white” is probably a misinterpretation of the word punctatus, which Thunberg used in reference to the prominent white lenticels on the stems.) In the Rhododendron section of the catalogue, on page 78, there is a reference to “a recent published paper from C. M. Hovey, whose experience in this plant is well known, he states that he bought in 1884 [should read 1844], in England, a number of Rhododendrons supposed to be hardy.” A search of the literature from this period turned up Hovey’s article in the December 1885 issue of The American Garden, which makes spring 1886 the earliest possible date for the publication of the Kissena Nurseries catalogue.
The first horticultural description of Oriental bittersweet in America did not come until a few years later, in a Garden and Forest article by John G. Jack (1889). Under the heading “Notes from the Arnold Arboretum,” Jack described Celastrus articulata (noting that the name should be C. orbiculata) and stated that it “has inhabited the Arboretum for several years, having been sent here from the Parsons’ Nursery at Flushing [New York].” Jack was enthusiastic about its ornamental attributes: “The fruit is smaller than that of our American species, but it is very brilliantly colored, and, as it is produced here in the greatest profusion along the whole length of the spur-like lateral branches, it makes a great show after the leaves have fallen, remaining fresh and bright until nearly the end of winter. C. articulata is a hardy and vigorous plant, growing rampantly when once established in rich soil, and then sometimes producing stems twelve or fifteen feet long during a single season, and immense masses of foliage.”
Remarkably, no more than three weeks later, in a letter to the editor of Garden and Forest, a writer who signed his name only as “S.” described the elegant estate of Charles A. Dana on the tiny island of Dosoris in the town of Glen Cove on the north shore of Long Island, New York. The description goes into great detail about the fabulous garden plantings—especially the conifers—but one sentence stands out, “A seawall is built all around the island, and it is draped and festooned with Matrimony vine [Lycium barbatum], our native Bitter-sweet, a Japanese species of the same genus (Celastrus articulatus) and Periploca Graeca, which are planted on the top.” While nothing can be said for sure about when the Oriental bittersweet on Dosoris was planted, the fact that it received such a prominent mention suggests that Mr. Dana’s plants were well established and that he probably got them from Samuel Parsons, whose Kissena Nurseries were only twenty miles away in Flushing.
A little more than a year after these two articles appeared, in the November 12, 1890, issue of Garden and Forest, Charles S. Sargent wrote an article featuring Celastrus articulata under the heading of “New or Little Known Plants.” The article described the morphology of the plant in detail and was accompanied by an illustration of the plant drawn by the Arboretum’s botanical illustrator, Charles Faxon. Sargent praised its ornamental fruit “which, as long as they remain on the plants, nearly hide it from view” and reported that the Arboretum’s first plant was received from Samuel Parsons in 1879.
A check of the Arboretum’s old card file system revealed that accession 190 had indeed been sent to the Arboretum by Samuel Parsons in 1879 under the name C. punctatus. In their articles, both Jack and Sargent changed the specific epithet to articulata instead of punctatus. Whether they did this because they thought the two species were synonymous or because they thought the plant was misidentified is unclear, but the latter explanation is more likely. Remarkably, the card file also revealed that seeds of “Celastrus articulatus” (accession 192) were received by the Arboretum on March 2, 1880, from the Agricultural College in Sapporo, Japan, less than a year after Parsons sent the Arboretum a plant of “C. punctatus.” Fortunately the Arboretum possesses herbarium specimens of both of these accessions, one from accession 190-1, which originated from a cutting collected on October 20, 1887, from Parsons’s original plant, and the other from one of the original Sapporo plants collected on October 26, 1888. Both herbarium specimens are labeled “articulata” and both are in fruit, but only the Parsons specimen has leaves on it. As far as I have been able to determine, they are both Celastrus orbiculatus.
Who Sent the Seeds?
The unanswered question about the introduction of Oriental bittersweet into North America boils down to this: Where did Samuel Parsons get his plants? One possibility is that they came from Dr. George Rogers Hall, an American physician who lived in Japan from 1855 through 1861 and introduced many Japanese plants (including many collected by Siebold) into North America (Spongberg 1990). In March of 1862, upon his return to the United States, Hall hand-delivered a large shipment of Japanese plants and seeds to Parsons, who breathlessly described unpacking them in The Horticulturist. While there is no mention of Celastrus in the article, the door of possibility is left slightly ajar with the statement that the shipment contained “a large number of other tree and shrub seeds.” But this seems an unlikely source for bittersweet given that it would have necessitated a seventeen year time lag before its distribution to the Arnold Arboretum. In addition, a comprehensive article titled “Ornamental Vines” by Josiah Hoopes in The Horticulturist (July 1874) describes American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) and one of Hall’s notorious introductions, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), but makes no mention of Oriental bittersweet.
The available evidence—what little there is— suggests that Thomas Hogg, Jr. was the source of Parsons’s Oriental bittersweet seeds. Hogg served as the United States marshal assigned to the Japanese Consulate from 1862 to 1869 and later as an advisor to the Japanese Customs Service from 1873 through 1875. Hogg’s father, Thomas, Sr., had immigrated to New York City from London in 1821 and established one of the first nurseries in the area. When Thomas, Sr. died in 1854, his two sons, James and Thomas, Jr., took over the business. During his diplomatic appointment in Japan, Hogg used the opportunity to send a number of Japanese plants—most notably variegated hostas and Japanese irises—to the family nursery in New York as well as to other horticulturally minded individuals in the northeast (Sargent 1888, 1894; Whitehead 2011). Hogg interacted with various Japanese nurseries as well as the European botanists who were working in Japan at the time, most notably Carl Maximowicz who lived in Japan from 1860 through 1864 and collected numerous plants—including Oriental bittersweet—for the St. Petersburg Botanical Garden (Bretschneider 1898). In a letter to his brother James (published in The Horticulturist in 1863), Hogg described their relationship: “There is a Russian Botanist (Mr. Macimovitch) now here making a collection of living and dried plants for a Society in St. Petersburg. He has been in the country three years, and is now about returning home by the way of Nagasaki. He has been very industrious, and has procured many valuable things. I frequently call upon him, and find him very communicative, and have obtained much valuable information from him.”
During his second sojourn in Japan, Hogg worked as an advisor for the Japanese Customs Service, a position that allowed him more freedom to travel around the country and collect plants than he had had during his first trip (Sargent 1893). He again sent plants and seeds to numerous horticulturists, including Samuel B. Parsons, a fact that was documented in September 1875 in an article about Kissena Nurseries written by Josiah Hoopes: “Adjoining this block of fine specimens is a suite of cold-frames well filled with the largest collections of Japanese plants to be found,—not only in the United States, but in Europe as well. They were sent home by that indefatigable collector Thos. Hogg, now a resident of Japan.” Parsons himself acknowledged Hogg’s contributions in an advertisement on the back cover of the February 1876 issue of Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturist, which announced that “Their Japanese Department [of Kissena Nurseries] is being constantly enriched by Thomas Hogg, now in Japan.” In the absence of any direct reference to the importation of Oriental bittersweet, these statements by Hoopes and Parsons are critically important because they provide a likely explanation for how and when Celastrus orbiculatus arrived in North America: collection in Japan by Thomas Hogg, Jr. in the fall of 1874; propagation by Samuel B. Parsons in 1875; distribution to the Arnold Arboretum in 1879; nursery sales in the early 1880s followed by the first North American catalogue listing in 1886 or 1887.
The rapidity of Oriental bittersweet’s distribution was such that by 1893—less than twenty years after its collection in Japan—J. G. Jack reported that it “is now found in a good many gardens.” And C. S. Sargent, in his book Forest Flora of Japan (1894) referred to Oriental bittersweet as “now well-known.” In this same book, he makes the interesting observation that “its leafless branches, covered with fruit, are sold in the autumn in great quantities in all Japanese towns, where they are used in house decorations”—a tradition similar to their current use on Thanksgiving tables and Christmas wreaths in the eastern United States. By 1901 (and probably earlier), plants of “Celastrus articulata” were available directly from Japan via the Yokohama Nursery Company for 20 cents (gold) each or ten for $1.80, and by 1907 the Biltmore Nursery in Asheville, North Carolina was offering 1½- to 2-foot-tall plants of Celastrus orbiculatus for 15 cents each, $1.50 per dozen, or $10 per hundred—an 80% drop in price from its initial public offering (75¢) in the Kissena catalogue some twenty years earlier.
The Era of Distribution and Promotion
In 1898, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens (and a good friend of Charles Darwin), reported in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine that the Arnold Arboretum sent seeds of Oriental bittersweet to Kew in 1891. According to Hooker, the seedlings grew vigorously and flowered for the first time six years later, in June 1897, and fruited in November. Remarkably, this plant returned to North America when, according to George Nash writing in Addisonia in 1916, the New York Botanical Garden raised Oriental bittersweet plants “from seed secured in 1897 from the Royal Gardens, Kew, England.” Nash also noted that the painting that accompanied the article “was prepared from a vine growing on some small trees in the rear of the Museum building of the New York Botanical Garden. It was of accidental occurrence there, and perhaps originated from seed carried by the birds from the large specimen in the viticetum [a place where vines, especially grapevines, are cultivated] but a short distance to the east”—the very plant that had come from Kew Gardens in 1897. So the cycle is complete: bittersweet seeds went from the wilds of Japan to Flushing to Boston to England and then back to New York where they began to naturalize!
Oriental bittersweet was a relatively rare cultivated plant towards the end of the nineteenth century, mainly confined to the properties of wealthy horticultural enthusiasts. With its dramatic fruit display and rampant growth, however, the plant was destined for popularity, and the staff of the Arnold Arboretum, as it had done earlier, was leading the charge. E. H. Wilson, writing in his 1925 book about the Arnold Arboretum, America’s Greatest Garden, described the plant in glowing terms, “On the left ascending the Bussey Hill road, is another arresting feature. It is merely a dense tangle of Japanese Bittersweet (Celastrus articulata) but how beautiful!— a mass of clear yellow foliage and a wild profusion of fruits with deep yellow husks cracked open, disclosing the clustered seeds clad in jackets of cinnabarred.” Later on he notes that some of the Arboretum’s boulders of granite and conglomerate were covered with Oriental bittersweet “whose stems are coiled and twisted into an intricate clump of growth, picturesque at all season of the year.” No doubt he was referring to plants that E. J. Palmer later reported finding on the south side of Hemlock Hill in his 1935 publication, Supplement to the Spontaneous Flora of the Arnold Arboretum.
While Wilson was an admirer of Oriental bittersweet, the Arboretum’s longtime horticulturist, Donald Wyman, was its true champion. He wrote about the plant in various Arnold Arboretum publications in 1939, 1944, and 1950 as well as in a number of other horticultural publications, and described it in his best-selling Shrubs and Vines for American Gardens, published in 1949. Wyman’s 1944 article was a survey of the use of rapidly growing vines in the United States, which concluded that Oriental bittersweet grows well in most regions of the country, other than the coastal southeast and the arid west, and that a panel of eminent horticulturists considered it to be among the most ornamental of the ninety-one vines under observation.
Wyman’s 1950 paper is particularly interesting because he looks specifically at the fruiting habit of three bittersweet species in relation to their complex flower structure. Based on a series of bagging experiments, he postulated that pollen of either American (C. scandens) or Oriental (C. orbiculatus) bittersweet could pollinate the other. He also reported the existence of a “polygamo-dioecious” clone of Oriental bittersweet at the Arnold Arboretum with self-fertile, perfect flowers. Wyman concluded his paper by admonishing nurserymen to stop growing Celastrus “indiscriminately” from seed and start “growing only pistillate [female] plants from cuttings and budding on each plant one or two buds of the staminate plant.”
Wyman’s report of the hybridization between American and Oriental bittersweet was not the first. Three years earlier, Orland White and Wray Bowden of the University of Virginia had reported the successful creation of hybrids between American and Oriental bittersweet, but only when C. scandens was used as the seed (female) parent. White and Bowden’s 1947 paper is also noteworthy because it offered an early warning about the invasive tendencies of Oriental bittersweet, noting that it “has escaped from cultivation in Virginia and the New York Botanical Garden, where it has become almost a pest, as it readily germinated from seed and is widely distributed by birds eating the berries and voiding the seeds.”
The Era of Invasiveness
Donald Wyman reiterated his enthusiasm for the ornamental value of Oriental bittersweet in his article in the October 1, 1964, issue of American Nurseryman, but tempered it with the caveat that “bittersweet vines are vigorous twiners and can become vicious pests.” This warning, alas, was too little, too late.
In 1973, David Patterson published a short article on the “Distribution of Oriental Bittersweet in the United States,” which was abstracted from his recently completed Ph.D. thesis at Duke University. The article was blunt about the serious threat posed by Oriental bittersweet and the fact that, following its initial introduction, the plant was “popularized as an ornamental by the Arnold Arboretum.” Sparing no one, he also noted its distribution by the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., in 1966 and 1967 to nurseries and public gardens in 30 states as well as its recommended use for highway bank plantings in New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. He concluded his article with the prescient note that “There are no indications that Oriental bittersweet has reached the limits of its potential range in the United States. In the future, unless planting and distribution are discouraged, it may become as serious a pest as Japanese honeysuckle.”
While most of Patterson’s work on the physiological ecology of Celastrus orbiculatus has been superseded by modern research, his history of the plant’s spread as a naturalized species is a classic example of the exponential growth of an invasive species, beginning with the earliest collection of a spontaneous plant in Cherry Grove, Maryland in 1912. By 1940, naturalized Oriental bittersweet had been collected at 16 sites in six states, and by 1970 it was reported from 84 sites in 19 states. Today it is reported from thousands of sites in at least 25 states.
Following Patterson’s ground-breaking work, dozens of articles have been published on all aspects of the plant’s biology, many of them focusing on its competitive displacement of American bittersweet in areas where the two species overlap. While there is considerable debate about the mechanisms driving this displacement, there can be little doubt that Oriental bittersweet is the more adaptable of the two species in terms of its growth potential, its tolerance of soil disturbance and low light, and its greater production of both pollen and seed. One study, published in 1999 by Jean Fike and Bill Niering of Connecticut College, documented how a lone plant of Celastrus orbiculatus—over a forty-year period—completely altered the trajectory of the typical old-field succession process in New London, Connecticut. In another study based on data from greater New York City, researchers at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden documented the concurrent decline of Celastrus scandens and increase of Celastrus orbiculatus over the past hundred and twenty years (Steward et al. 2003).
In a very recent Ph.D. thesis, David Zaya (2013) of the University of Illinois, Chicago, determined that when the two bittersweet species grow side by side in the wild, 1) the Oriental species hybridizes asymmetrically with its American cousin such that 51% of the seedlings produced by C. scandens were hybrids while only 1.6% of those of C. orbiculatus were; and 2) the rate of hybridization of C. scandens varies directly with its proximity to C. orbiculatus. In controlled crosses between the two species, Zaya found that pistillate plants of C. scandens were twenty times more likely to produce hybrids when pollinated with C. orbiculatus pollen than vice versa, confirming earlier reports that hybridization between the two species is mainly unidirectional. Remarkably, he also calculated that Oriental bittersweet produces up to 200 times more pollen per individual plant than C. scandens. In short, American bittersweet, through a mechanism that Zaya refers to as “pollen swamping,” is slowly being hybridized into oblivion by Oriental bittersweet.
The rise of Oriental bittersweet and the concurrent demise of its American cousin is a story that goes to the dark heart of the human relationship with nature—things “go oft awry” not from bad intentions but from ignorance. Without thinking much about it, we have globalized our environment in much the same way we have globalized our economy. Certainly the Arnold Arboretum has learned from its past mistakes and is now much more careful about promoting plants that have the potential to become invasive species. But the fact is that climate change—acting in concert with urbanization and globalization—has made the world much more complicated and less predictable than it was back in the days of Sargent, Jack, and Wilson. Across the planet, cosmopolitan ecosystems are displacing native vegetation at an alarming rate but at the same time many of these non-native species are growing vigorously on highly disturbed or badly contaminated land. It’s a bittersweet conundrum that the plants that grow best under such conditions are seldom the ones we want.
The author would especially like to thank Anner Whitehead for her assistance in tracking down the connection between Thomas Hogg and Samuel Parsons, Lisa Pearson of the Arnold Arboretum Library and Archives for tracking down several obscure references, and the librarians at the New York Botanical Garden and the L. H. Bailey Hortorium at Cornell University for providing access to their Kissena Nurseries catalogues. This article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Leslie Mehrhoff of the University of Connecticut, Storrs, who was deeply interested in all plants, regardless of their invasive tendencies.
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Peter Del Tredici is a Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum.
From “free” to “friend”…
Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.
It takes resources to gather and nurture these new voices, and we depend on the support of our member-subscribers to make it possible. But membership means more: by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum, you help to keep our collection vibrant and our research and educational mission active. Through the pages of Arnoldia, you can take part in the life of this free-to-all landscape whether you live next door or an ocean away.