Ornamental Bittersweet Production for Small Woodland Farms

Final Report for FNC97-195

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1997: $2,915.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Our farm is located in Perry County, Indiana, which is in the south central portion of the state. The southern boundary of the county is the Ohio River, and much of the interior of the county is Hoosier National Forest property. We are adjacent to National Forest property, consisting of 14 acres of relatively level ridge top. Approximately 4 acres of the 10 acres production field is devoted to cultivation of annual and perennial cut flower crops marketed to regional florist businesses and at Louisville farmer’s market.

We are in the process of establishing woody perennial ornamental berry crops to augment our product line and extend our marketing season. Winterberry holly (Ilexverticillata) has been marketed during the holiday season. The current bittersweet project is directed to market high value cut stems to florist, retail and wholesale outlets.

Cover cropping, both for green manuring and for winter soil protection, has been a sustainable practice we have employed since starting our farm business five years ago. It has become even more important as we have expanded our production acreage to allow for rotational planting of annual crops.

The farm is family owned and operated by the husband and wife team of John Klueh and Tameria Ford, both of whom hold a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture, specifically Horticulture Production, from Purdue University.

There were two specific goals we identified in our original proposal, 1) develop a system for the production of bittersweet as a high value crop and 2) the production system must be conducive to the sustainability of the forest ecosystem it borders.

In order to reach these goals, there were two components of the project, 1) selection of plant material and 2) construction of a trellis system to support the viney growth habit.

We initially attempted to propagate American Bittersweet from seed collected from wild populations. Seed propagation proved to be difficult, and the resulting juvenile plants too slow to establish to be useful considering the time frame of the grant. We decided to purchase plants from reputable nurseries for quicker establishment. Dr. Bruno Moser of Purdue University Horticulture Department, offered assistance during our initial investigations into locating plant material. There are three species of bittersweet that have been used by florists and designers; American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), Oriental bittersweet (C. orbiculatus), Chinese or Loesneri bittersweet (C. loesneri). We wanted to have material of each of the three species for comparison, and were aware that some confusion regarding the various species exists within the nursery industry. We therefore ordered plant material of each of the three species from several nursery sources.

Most of the plant material through commercial nurseries were from seedling populations and therefore not sexed. At that time, we found only one nursery which offered sexed rooted cuttings. Efforts were made to locate named cultivars of American bittersweet. However, the two cultivars we did find were not available in large quantities or at prices which would be reasonable for consideration in commercial production of woody cut stems.

Field preparation for planting began in the summer of 1997, with the plowing, disking and liming of one half acre block. Subsequent sowing of sorghum sudan grass was plowed down as a green manure crop in November of 1997. Winter wheat was sewn as a winter cover crop. Soil tests were analyzed during the winter of 1998, and a general purpose 12-12-12 fertilizer was incorporated when the winter cover crop was disked down in the spring of 1998. After the rows were laid out, a subsoiler was pulled deeply down the middle of each row to break up the hardpan subsoil. A generous layer of 3”-4” of well composted sawdust purchased from a local sawmill was rototilled into each of the 5 rows prior to planting. Rows were planted sequentially as we received plant material from the nurseries and as weather permitted. The rows are ten feet apart, and the plants four feet apart in the row. All planting of the initial quarter acre was completed by the end of May, 1998.

Trellises were constructed in August of 1998, as vines were beginning to elongate. Each trellis consists of 8’ treated posts, 2’ in the ground, 20’ apart in the row, and three 12 gauge high tensile wires stretched horizontally 2’, 4’ and 6’ above soil level. End posts are supported with screw type soil anchors. Two 4’ lengths of bamboo were attached vertically to the horizontal wires above each plant to facilitate upward growth of the vines. The bittersweet vines readily spiraled upward on these bamboo struts.

Establishment and growth in 1998 was excellent. We had nearly 100% plant survival, and many of the plants began vigorous vine shoot elongation in July and August of 1998. by fall of 1998, the same season as planting, much of the trellis was covered with long twining vine growth we asked for and were granted an extension of the project at this point to allow for flowering and fruiting which occurs on the 2nd year wood.

In spring of 1999, all plants were growing vigorously and exhibited heavy flowering on 2nd year wood. On May 16th, we spent several hours walking the rows and sexing the dioecious plants. Not surprisingly, the ratio of male to female plants was about 50/50, far more males than needed in a berry production system. On May 30th, we spent several more hours digging up excess male plants and replanting females to attain a ratio of one male to 8-10 females. Planners for future bittersweet production plantings would find it expedient to purchase sexed plants at the ratio of about one male to ten females. Based on our observations from the 1st season of growth, we purchased more sexed plant material to fill in remainder of the one half acre field.

Berry fruit set was obviously heavy immediately after flowering. It soon became apparent that the plants which were supposedly different species were remarkably similar. The American bittersweet (C. scandens) has a notably different fruiting habit, the berries being clustered at the ends of short lateral stems. It became clear that we did not have any true American bittersweet out of the 100 that we ordered and which were shipped to us as C. scandens. Although the Oriental and the Loesneri bittersweet species are more difficult to separate, it is likely that we have only one species rather than the three we had ordered, that species being Oriental bittersweet, (C. orbiculatus). The nursery industry needs to become more aware of the species differences and more accurate in species identification and labeling.

The Oriental bittersweet is a very vigorous, precious and fruitful species. It is readily trained to grow up the trellis system. We harvested about 70 pounds of high quality bittersweet stems from the quarter acre planting in only the 2nd season of growth. We conservatively estimate this year’s harvest to be about 20% of what we can expect to harvest in two or three years when the planting reaches full production. Selection and propagation of productive plants could increase yields further. The heavily berried stems commanded a premium price for us during the fall season, both through florist outlets and at our farmer’s market. Our conclusion is that this species is ideally suited as a quickly established, vigorous and productive crop to grow as a high value woody cut stem – except for one potential negative.

We had heard that in places in the north eastern US this particular species had escaped cultivation and become an invasive pest. But we were not aware of the extent of the problem until we were in Massachusetts this fall for the annual conference of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Along miles of Interstate highway in Massachusetts, Connecticut and eastern Pennsylvania, Oriental bittersweet is climbing fences, climbing posts and climbing trees and shrubs. We heard reference to it as “the Kudzu of the north”! Although there is currently no evidence of escape from cultivation in our area, we are very concerned about growing this crop adjacent to a sensitive forest ecosystem. We would be hesitant to recommend planting production trellises of Oriental bittersweet based on what we observed in the northeastern US.

Though the Oriental bittersweet for significant returns in the second season, our initial costs were high and we are still in the red. Plant material costs were about $600/quarter acre, although this cost could be decreased by purchasing all plant material from the same nursery. Trellis material costs were about $500/quarter acre. Labor costs of vine training and harvest will be substantial. The long vining nature of the plant requires close attention to training during the growing season. Harvest is a tedious process, often involving untwining current season growth in order to uncover previous season berried stems for cutting. A more sophisticated training system which separates current year growth from previous year growth would alleviate some harvest labor.

Early in spring of 1998, we submitted a press release to our local newspaper, the Perry County News, detailing our grant project and the support of NCRSARE. In March of 1998, at the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers Midwest Regional meeting held at Purdue University campus, Tammy gave a presentation of our crop production system, which included the bittersweet project and the support of NCRSARE. The project was also mentioned during a presentation Tammy made at the Kentucky Extension personnel retreat in Louisville, Kentucky in November of 1998.

In September of 1999, we scheduled a field day just prior to harvest of the mature bittersweet stems. We advertised the field day in several ways; local newspapers (The Perry County News, The Ferdinand News, etc.); through our Perry County Extension agent Mr. Allen Ullom, who included the announcement in his monthly newsletter; through the Floyd County extension agent Mr. Roy Ballard, who sent flyers to those on his extensive mailing list. Our field day was a great success with 30-35 participants from as far as Crawfordsville, West Lafayette, and Princeton, Indiana; from Cincinnati, Ohio; and several interested people from our local Perry County community. Among the field day participants were Mr. Allen Ullom, Dr. Bruno Moser of Purdue University, Rick and Gayle Ecabert (fellow cut flower growers from Ohio), a Southern Indiana blueberry grower interested in diversifying his crop base, and a Perry County couple very interested in bittersweet as a cash crop.

In November of 1999, we made a presentation at the Midwest Small Farm Conference in Hamilton County, Indiana just outside of Indianapolis. The presentation encompassed all aspects of our cut flower farm and business, and we specifically mentioned our bittersweet project and results, and the cooperation of NCRSARE. There were approximately 35-40 in attendance for our presentation.

Additionally, Dr. Bruno Moser made two trips to our farm during the project period. He made notes of the progress of our production system, and took many slides of the trellis. He will incorporate the results of this project into his wealth of information on woody cut stems for the florist industry.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.