The botanists call it Euonymus americanus. One common name for it is Strawberry Bush. I prefer its other common name: Hearts A-Burstin’.
This often spindly native shrub of our moist woodlands has always been a favorite of mine, especially because the “hearts” open right around the time of my wedding anniversary.
Its common names refer to the showy fruits that take your breath away when you stumble across a specimen in the still-green forests of early fall. On a healthy plant, bumpy capsules colored and shaped like strawberries adorn every branch. When those capsules split open to reveal shiny orange-red seeds, you can easily imagine them to be hearts bursting open.
As neighboring forests have been erased by bulldozers, pushing more and more deer into my yard, I have only two shrubs remaining of the dozen that once graced my landscape. Both were fortuitously planted by birds in spots that disguise them from deer. One grows through a wire fence; the other through a native viburnum. They are both more than 6 feet tall, and right now bursting hearts weigh down every branch. Here’s a wider view to give you a sense of its visual impact:
The square stems of this plant remain green all year, which may explain their appeal to deer. In fact, my research tells me that this native occupant of our shady understory is a favorite food of deer. Consequently, the presence or absence of this shrub in the Piedmont landscape is an excellent indicator of deer population levels. If you see this shrub, your deer population is not too high; if you don’t, Bambi’s clan has overtaken your area.
Rabbits also eat the stems, and birds eat the berries, although not enthusiastically. But because the birds don’t devour the berries, they dangle longer on the open seed capsules, looking a bit like ornaments hanging on Christmas trees.
The greenish-white waxy flowers are inconspicuous. I have to remind myself to check the shrubs each spring so that I don’t miss them.
But if you are lucky enough to meet this native beauty in autumn, you will never forget it.