American bittersweet is a North American native plant found throughout the eastern two-thirds of the United States (except Florida) and Canada. It is prized for its spectacular autumn color with yellow leaves and orange berries. A vigorous grower that can reach to 20 feet, bittersweet is also known as Jacob's ladder, yellow root and climbing orange root among others. Growing bittersweet for craft purposes, garden decor or to feed animals can be tricky as bittersweet can easily take over the garden. Avoid Oriental bittersweet varieties, as they have been declared noxious and choke out native plants.
Collect bittersweet fruit in early fall when the yellow-orange capsules begin to burst open to reveal the orange berries inside. Be sure that you are collecting from American bittersweet instead of Oriental cultivars. American bittersweet blooms and fruits on the ends of vines, while Oriental bittersweet fruits bloom at the base of the leaves up and down the vines. Seeds are available at online nurseries. Consult your local cooperative extension office for advice for obtaining them in your area.
Spread fruit on a shallow pan such as a cookie sheet and allow to dry for two to three weeks.
Remove seeds from dried fruit. Dry for another week.
Plant seeds in a container of moist peat moss and refrigerate for three months to promote germination. Keep at temperatures between 31 and 41 degrees, checking regularly for moisture. Keep the seeds moist and cool until time for planting in the spring.
Sow seeds in spring outdoors in mostly sunny locations once the threat of frost has passed by placing seeds in soil and covering lightly with soil and a thin layer of mulch. Avoid planting near trees as bittersweet's rapid growth can damage or even kill trees. Mix in compost, peat moss, decaying leaves or manure to recreate the rich, soggy environment American bittersweet prefers.
Thin emerging seedlings to 12 to 36 inches apart. Water regularly to keep soil moist until established.