The strawberry bush rewards those who can wait until fall to enjoy its bright red beauty.
I may have made this point before, but I’m no big enthusiast for autumn. It gets cold. The plants die. The drowsy summer sounds of cicadas and tree frogs are replaced by a whining chorus of leaf blowers. And then winter comes.
What’s to like?
OK, I’ll concede that fall (which in my book is mostly just a prelude to the long, dark, coat-wearing months) may have a few redeeming qualities, including those fleeting, perfect autumn afternoons when the great burst of bright colors stands out against a deep blue sky. And then there are those certain native plants that almost shine in autumn as the sea of undifferentiated green that is summer is gradually replaced by scarlets and golds and deep, ruddy reds. One of these plants is euonymus americanus, a.k.a. “strawberry bush,” a.k.a. (and with a colloquial name like this, one is tempted never to call it anything else) “hearts-a-bustin’.”
In the spring and summer, it is a pleasant green shrub not strikingly distinguishable from any other pleasant green shrub. Even its advocates admit this. When the Virginia Native Plant Society’s John Clayton Chapter, which encompasses the Williamsburg, Hampton and Northern Neck areas, named strawberry bush its “Wildflower of the Month” in October 2010, the description began with this, er, ringing endorsement: “Strawberry bush is a shade-loving shrub that goes unnoticed much of the year.”
If, however, you did somehow happen to notice your nearby euonymus americanus, you would see that it has narrowly oval, pointed, slightly toothed green leaves and a tidy upright habit; it’s not one of those plants that goes sprawling all over the place like a layabout teenager on summer break.
The blooms of the strawberry bush, though entertainingly odd little creatures, could not by any generous stretch of the imagination be called “showy.” Each sits at the end of its own long stem (or “pedicel,” if you prefer the technical term). They are flat, with greenish-yellow shading into a kind of purplish antique rose, and at their center is a disc (not the technical term) with stubby pistils and stamen poking out. Frankly, the thing looks like some alien craft that got lost from the mother ship.
The strawberry bush flowers in early summer. Then comes, in the memorably vivid words of Helen Hamilton of the Virginia Native Plant Society, the “warty fruit covering.” This starts out a pale green, and it is the promise that really, no kidding, things are going to get interesting for those of you with the patience to wait.
Because come autumn—yes fall, yes that time of year—hearts-a-bustin’ (or sometimes, “bursting”) earns its name and finally hits its stride. Those warty fruit coverings ripen into a brilliant fuchsia. The leaves turn a lovely pinkish-red. And then the fruit coverings burst open to reveal the bright, shiny red fruit within. This is the strawberry bush’s grand moment on the stage before winter shoulders in to retire it back to the chorus line for another year.
Some parts of the strawberry bush are supposed to have medicinal value, but I wouldn’t recommend testing this theory with experimental practice. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Guide notes that “the seed is a strong laxative,” and elsewhere—for example, in the Virginia Native Plant Society write-up—this point is made more explicitly: The words “severe diarrhea” come into play. A widely reported but unconfirmed claim found across the Internet adds that the seeds can also cause cardiac arrest.
On the other hand, if you are deer, you apparently cannot resist the strawberry bush. Jan Newton, who is director of the education committee for the Virginia Native Plant Society, says, “Strawberry bush is often referred to as ‘deer candy.’” In fact—though I’m not quite sure how you measure the absence of something—according to the USDA’s Plant Guide, you know when you have too many deer because all the wild strawberry bush disappears.
So while this shade-happy understory shrub makes a great ornamental plant, if you lovingly add a bunch of these to your garden (and you don’t have a tall fence and possibly also a large dog for good measure) you may come out one morning to find them all eaten to the ground, and then your own heart will be a-bustin’ as well.