By Terry W. Johnson
Imagine a plant so captivating, with seed capsules that beckon your gaze, it could be called a work of art. Introducing the strawberry bush (Euonymus americana), a native deciduous shrub known for its beauty and deserving of a place in landscapes across the state. This remarkable plant, also referred to as wahoo, burning bush, bursting heart, hearts-a-bursting, and hearts-bustin’-with-love, showcases its breathtaking allure during late summer and fall, proudly gracing Georgia’s woodlands.
The strawberry bush, growing between 6 to 12 feet tall, can be found along streams, its roots nestled in damp, rich soil. However, it also thrives in upland and lowland sites, showcasing its adaptability. Surprisingly, this shrub can flourish even in full shade, yet it truly flourishes when bathed in partial sunlight.
A Symphony of Colors
For much of the year, the strawberry bush fades into obscurity, with its small, yellowish-green blooms concealed from plain sight. However, during spring and summer, the shrub adorns itself with brown, lance-shaped, serrated leaves that envelop green stems and branches. The showstopper, though, is its 1-inch, warty capsules that bear four to five berries, gradually maturing from green to pinkish red. While some say they resemble strawberries, others see the likeness to raspberries. Then, in September and October, the capsules burst open, revealing scarlet-red berries that hang delicately from thread-like filaments, earning it the name hearts-a-bursting.
As summer surrenders to fall, the leaves of the strawberry bush transform into a vibrant red hue, perfectly complementing its colorful fruit. Witnessing this breathtaking sight is an extraordinary experience.
A Home for Wildlife
Although not a significant wildlife food source due to its scarcity, the strawberry bush plays a vital role in supporting various species. Songbirds like the eastern bluebird, wood thrush, and northern mockingbird savor the plant’s red, pulpy seeds. Wild turkeys and small mammals delight in the succulent berries. The shrub’s tiny flowers offer nectar to hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. Additionally, eastern cottontails and white-tailed deer feast on its leaves, bark, and stems.
Interestingly, white-tailed deer are so fond of the strawberry bush that it has earned the nickname “deer ice cream.” When deer populations are exceedingly high, these graceful animals devour the plant down to the ground, making it one of the first casualties of their voracious appetite. In such instances, the only strawberry bushes that survive thrive in yards untouched by whitetails.
A Rich History
The strawberry bush’s allure is not recent; early colonists marveled at its beauty and were among the first to introduce it to Europe’s ornamental gardens as early as 1663. Long before Europeans arrived, Native Americans cherished the plant for its medicinal properties. They brewed tea from its roots to alleviate urinary and stomach ailments. Over time, different parts of the plant were used to treat dandruff, constipation, malaria, and liver disorders.
Embrace the Beauty
Consider introducing this exquisite native shrub to your yard. While it can be purchased from reputable wild plant dealers, it is best to participate in a native-plant rescue if you wish to remove it from the wild. Alternatively, you can establish it by carefully digging up root clumps and transplanting them during the winter season.
Although propagating the strawberry bush from seed can be challenging, simply having this remarkable plant in your yard will spark conversations and bring diversity to your flora. Come fall, it will gift your landscape with an extraordinary burst of color.
Discover more about the wonders of nature and Terry W. Johnson’s insights by visiting Ames Farm Center. Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, an expert in backyard wildlife, and the executive director of The Environmental Resources Network (TERN), a friend group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section.