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Volume 16, Issue 43 - October 23 - October 29, 2008
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Earth Journal by Gary Pendleton

October’s Supporting Cast

Hearts-a-bursting add brilliant notes of color to a walk in the woods

I grew up thinking of Mid-October as peak time for fall color. Perhaps it is due to global warming, for it seems to me that the peak now comes a little later here on the mid-Atlantic coastal plain, around early November.

Hickory and tulip poplar will soon turn yellow, and the tupelo bright red. Leaves get all the attention, but there are smaller details that add brilliant notes of color to a walk in the woods. Before the big show begins, you might come across the brilliant fruit of Euonymus americanus, also known commonly as strawberry bush — or hearts-a-bursting.

Strawberry bush is a small shrub with serrated green leaves that sprout from dark green twigs. It grows in damp and shady places such as Battle Creek Cypress Swamp. It is small and delicate compared to the red maples and cypress trees that grow there. Even the viburnums tower over it, so most of the year you would hardly notice it.

But it’s there all along. In spring, it produces greenish-white flowers tinged with pink or purple. The flower ovules ripen into a bumpy globular fruit with a color that turns from green to hot pink as it ripens. Inside the capsule, as many as five berries swell and push against the protective husk.

In early fall, the colorful capsule splits open in four sections to reveal the scarlet berries. The color is so intense and the form of the fruit is so unusual that it is no longer inconspicuous; in fact, the color jumps out at you.

Strawberry bush is native to the eastern U.S. and is related to other plants in the bittersweet family such as the wahoo (I love that name), a purple-fruited plant that grows west of the Appalachians. Burning bush is a non-native relative that, unfortunately, is often planted as an ornamental. Unfortunate because it is an aggressive, invasive plant that can escape into natural areas and displace native plants, so don’t give it a home in your yard.

Interesting natives such as strawberry bush can be purchased from nurseries that specialize in native plants. Though it will do well in the shade, it can tolerate and even flourish in sunnier areas. Robins, mockingbirds, bluebirds and yellow-rump warblers might eat the berries. Hope you have had time to appreciate them first.

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