Native dioecious or partly dioecious, semi-shrubs or semi-shrubby vines, forming low, thick stands from root suckers, clambering and climbing onto fences and trees, broadly twining and sometimes reaching nearly 20 meters high, the older stems becoming several cm broad; roots long, woody, bright-orange, creeping, about 2-3 cm thick, with a thick, red or yellowish-red bark (the medicinal part). Flowers are unisexual, fragrant, small (4 mm wide), greenish-white or greenish-yellow, in clusters at the branch tips, usually with 14-44 flowers per cluster. Fruits are orange to yellow-orange,7-10 mm wide, with 2-4 cells; seeds 1-2 in each cell, each seed enclosed in a bright scarlet fleshy aril. This species flowers in late May through June and produces fruits in June through November.
In rich or swampy woods, or appearing weedy in disturbed areas in thickets, roadsides, field edges, fences, and other disturbed sites.
The related oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus Thunb.) is becoming more common than American bittersweet and is attaining a similar geographic range.