1. Celastrus L.
lianas, incompletely or rarely completely dioecious, sometimes spreading by
stolons and root suckers. Stems 1–20 m or more long, the branches
circular in cross-section, not winged. Leaves alternate, deciduous,
short-petiolate. Leaf blades variable in shape (even on the same plant), the
margins finely toothed. Inflorescences axillary or terminal clusters, sometimes
appearing as short racemes or small panicles. Flowers usually imperfect. Sepals
5. Petals 5. Staminate flowers with 5 stamens, these inserted under the margin
of the often lobed nectar disk, the filaments 1.5–2.0 mm long.
Pistillate flowers with minute staminodes, the ovary usually with 3 locules and
2 ovules per locule. Style short, stout, the stigma deeply 3-lobed. Fruits more
or less globose, 3-lobed, orange to yellow, dehiscent by 3 valves. Seeds
4–5 mm long, ovoid to ellipsoid, 3–6, each enclosed in a fleshy
red to orangish red aril. About 30 species, North America to South America,
Asia to Australia, Madagascar.
This genus is
closely related to the large pantropical genus Maytenus Molina (Hou,
1955). The sexuality of the flowers is variable. Some individuals have only
staminate flowers and never produce fruit, some have pistillate flowers with
abortive stamens, and some are mostly unisexual but produce a few perfect
flowers. Birds are attracted to and eat the bright red arillate seeds, but
these are poisonous to humans. The boiled bark has a sweet flavor and was used
as a famine food by various Indian tribes (Dillingham, 1907). The fruits of
bittersweet commonly are used in wreaths and other winter decorations.
In his original
description of the genus, Linnaeus (1753) treated Celastrus as masculine
and used the -us ending for the species name C. orbiculatus.
However, the classical Greek root for the generic epithet is feminine, and many
of the species names have been spelled inconsistently in the botanical
literature. Paclt (1998a) made a formal proposal to conserve the name Celastrus
as feminine, but the Committee for Spermatophyta of the International
Association of Plant Taxonomy, which must approve such proposals before they
can be voted upon at an International Botanical Congress, chose to table this
proposal until a later date (Brummitt, 2000), and no formal ruling on the
proper gender of the name has been published to date. As this situation is
identical to that found in Euonymus (see below) and in that case the
committee did rule against changing the original usage of Linnaeus from
masculine to feminine, the name Celastrus is here treated as masculine.