Deb Walker: Wild strawberry bush’s fruits a vivid sight

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 15, 2009

I spy … something red! My grandchildren love this game, and with the cooler weather, it’s a perfect time to “spy” for the red that inevitably shows up this time of year, especially in the woods.
The red in the oak leaves seems to be the first to be seen, then the red in the dogwood berries, which, this year, are particularly stunning.
Here in the Piedmont, we have another colored treasure, which is my favorite splash of red: the wild strawberry bush. The bumpy fruits are just now snapping open to expose the brilliant scarlet red berries and are such a delight to find. They grow around shaded streams, or open woods in a mixed deciduous forest. Unless you are looking for its tiny cream flowers in the spring, the bush itself doesn’t really stand out and can be overlooked.
But come the last days of September, the leaves turn bright red, orange and yellow, and the tiny raspberry-like fruits burst open to show five bright crimson berries, each one dangling on a thread-like stalk. Its alternate name is “hearts-a-bustin,’ ” and it’s clear why that’s an apt name.
The smooth green bark remains green during the winter, and is a tempting tidbit for the deer, which is the reason that most bushes don’t reach their 10-foot potential. Its nickname is “ice cream for white tails,” and deer will eat the entire plant, if allowed. Typically the plants are 3-6 feet in height. If grazed upon too heavily, the plant sends up shoots to other areas to form a thicket.
Even though the native Americans used the roots to make tea to cure a variety of ailments, the plant is extremely poisonous to humans, sheep and cattle. Strangely, the toxicity doesn’t seem to bother turkeys, bluebirds, warblers, mockingbirds and wood thrushes, which enjoy the fruits and help to disseminate the seeds.
Strawberry bush is in the bittersweet or staff tree family (Celastraceae). The “euonymus americana” is an easy to grow shrub, which likes moistÅ„to average soil, and dappled shade, and it can also tolerate dry weather. It should be pruned to discourage the natural spindly growth.
If you find one in the woods, propagation can be obtained using cuttings either taken in summer or fall. Starting from seeds is more challenging, as the natural seeds need three months of cold weather before germinating. Just be sure to remember that in nature this is an understory plant, so plant in similar surroundings.
There is a similar species in the Eastern United States with purple flowers called the “wahoo.” Turns out it’s named for a Dakota word for the arrow wood, which had four ridges. That’s OK, but I was hoping it was named by some guy who found one of these bushes, like I did, and shouted “wahoo!”
You’ll see. You’ll do the same when you find it.
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Deb Walker is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer with the Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County.