Currently throughout much of the state, there are few, if any, signs that fall is ready to blanket Georgia with a quilt of reds, oranges, and yellows. However, those of us that have strawberry bush (Euonymus americana) growing in their backyards have been granted a preview of the colorful show yet to come.
The strawberry bush is not a plant you would ever suspect as standing out among scores of other native shrubs that grow across the state. It is small (4-8 feet tall), often grows under the canopy of larger hardwood trees, or among a myriad of brushy plants along forest edges or in recently harvested timber tracts. However, from late summer into fall it is transformed into a shrub of unparalleled beauty.
At that of the year the plant’s seed capsules (arils), which are covered with conical warts, resemble green strawberries, turn pink and then bright red. Thereafter the leathery capsules magically open and display shiny red berries that appear suspended on thin threads. Once you cast your eyes on them for the first time, I am sure you will agree they possess unrivaled beauty.
The opened pods and dangling berries, reveals where the plant got some of its nicknames such as hearts-a-bustin, bursting hearts or hearts-bursting-open-with-love.
Strawberry bush is also referred to as spindletree. It seems that the plant’s hard wood was once used to make spindles for spinning wheels. If you will recall, in the popular children’s story of Sleeping beauty, the fair maiden fell asleep when she pricked her finger on a sharp spindle. It is believed this relates to the folktale that claims that the wood of the strawberry bush is poisonous and, if a person ingests the wood; he or she will fall into a coma. While I cannot attest that eating the wood would cause a person to end up in a coma, I do know that the plant is considered poisonous to humans.
Such is not the case with birds and mammals. In fact, it is an ice cream-food for white-tailed deer. Whitetails simply cannot get enough of it. In fact, one reason strawberry bush is not found in many woodlands is it has been heavily browsed by deer. It is interesting to note wildlife biologists often use the prevalence of strawberry bush as an indicator of the size of a deer herd.
Although, the berries are eaten by songbirds quail and even wild turkeys, strawberry bush rarely shows up in food habit studies. I believe this is because, in most places, very few berries are produced compared to other plants such as pokeberries, and American beautyberries.
Two things I also like about strawberry bush are that its leaves are aromatic and turn orange in the fall.
If your garden is not plagued by white-tailed deer, strawberry bush would be a great addition on your landscape. It is a Georgia native that is attractive and provides food for wildlife too.
Once you establish it, you will become one of the few people that can enjoy this harbinger of autumn long before the main show begins.