The American bittersweet plant is a perennial, dioecious, woody vine in the bittersweet, or Celastraceae family. Other common names for the vine include false bittersweet, staff vine, climbing orange-root, climbing bittersweet and Jacob's ladder. American bittersweet is a popular garden vine, but it can cause problems for other plants if proper care is not provided.
American bittersweet can reach up to 65 feet in height in the wild, although it typically only reaches about 20 feet when grown in the home garden. The vine's oval-shaped leaves are shiny, finely serrated and dark green in color. They turn an attractive yellow-green to yellow color during fall, and can reach up to 4 inches long and 2 inches wide. American bittersweet produces small, fragrant, greenish-white to greenish-yellow flowers in clusters on the tips of its branches. The plant also produces attractive, orange-yellow fruit in late fall that houses crimson colored seeds.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, American bittersweet is native to North America and is found most frequently in the eastern two-thirds of the United States and southeastern portions of Canada. The vine is most comfortable in swamp-like conditions where the soil is rich and moist. It is sometimes found growing in wooded areas and along fences, the edges of fields and roadsides.
American bittersweet is most valued for ornamental landscaping and is highly regarded for its attractive foliage, fruits and flowers. The vine's branches are sometimes cut for use in dried flower arrangements, and some parts of the plant have even been used medicinally to treat coughs and digestive problems. Various tribes of North American Indians once used the inner bark of the American bittersweet plant as food in emergencies, but consuming the plant is no longer recommended. Many animals also find the vine appealing. Birds, grouse, fox and squirrels are known to eat the plant's colorful fruit.
Although the American bittersweet plant prefers moist soil, it will tolerate most any soil conditions. It is adaptable to a wide range of pH and moisture levels. The plant can be propagated from seed or stem cuttings, and is best planted in fall or spring in an area that receives full sun. American bittersweet will grow in partial shade, but it will produce less fruit. Because of its climbing growth habit, a trellis, fence or other support is necessary. Periodic pruning may be required to prevent overgrowth, particularly if the vine is grown near buildings or other plants. American bittersweet is not self-pollinating, so male and female plants must be present for fruiting and flowering to occur. One male plant per every three female plants is recommended for the best results.
In some cases, American bittersweet can kill other plants used for support. This is rare, however, as the plant typically does not become invasive enough to cause a problem. American bittersweet should not be confused with Oriental bittersweet, which is much more invasive and kills other plants by uprooting them or preventing photosynthesis. Oriental bittersweet in not native to North America and is displacing American bittersweet in some areas where they grow together.