Yes, it's true. There are two bittersweets, like a pair of twins, one "evil," one "good." One is native, and a beautiful vine. The other is beautiful also, but it is an non-native, invasive plant bully that has been banned from sale in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), pictured above, is not just a pretty plant that looks great in an autumn wreath or Thanksgiving centerpiece. It has a long history of use by Native Americans and by the colonists who copied their medical practices. The root was boiled and pounded into a poultice or made into an ointment to treat burns, skin sores, eruptions, cancers, and rheumatism. A tea was used to treat liver ailments and dysentery. A stronger tea was used to cause uterine contractions during and after childbirth, and as an abortifacient. Bark extracts are thought to be cardioactive, so modern herbalists generally avoid the use of this plant.
Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) has its medicinal uses as well. In its native Asia, it is employed for the treatment of paralysis, circulatory problems, headache, toothache, and snake bites. Ongoing research is exploring its possible anti-tumor activity. But this non-native Oriental bittersweet is an invasive pest. Please hang out the UNWELCOME sign and don't let it move into your neighborhood!
China Bayles will explain the difference in her new mystery, Bittersweet. But if you can't wait for her explanation, you can read this. And then remember the old saying, trite but true: Pretty is as pretty does.