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Wednesday, 04 November 2009 20:00

The grand finale

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We tend to hone in on the showy flowering phase of a plant’s life for observation, identification, and enjoyment. But the greatest pleasure in coming to recognize and appreciate plants occurs when we learn to follow favorite plants from their earliest appearance as seedlings (germination) into the flowering (pollination) phase and on through the fruiting (seed dispersal) stage.

The fruiting stage is the grand finale in a plant’s life. It’s quite often conducted in a manner every bit as colorful and dramatic as anything that occurs during flowering. Many plants are, in fact, more eye-catching when fruiting than when flowering. Mountain ash, ginseng, staghorn sumac, wild yam, pawpaw, blue cohosh, pokeberry, sassafras, jimson weed, virgin’s bower, speckled wood lily, and doll’s-eyes and others fall into this category. One of my favorites is the aptly named “hearts-a-bustin’ with love,” which grows as a small shrub that is almost vine-like in rich woods, ravines, and along streams.

One scarcely notices hearts-a-bustin’ (Euonymus americanus) — also known as strawberry bush — from late April to early June, when its inconspicuous, small, greenish-purple flowers appear. At that time of the year, the plant is most easily identified by its angular, four-sided, green, artificial-looking stems, that can stand six feet tall.

The rough-textured fruits that mature in September and October and persist into mid-November are an entirely different story. Each capsule is nearly an inch in diameter and can range in color from deep pink to raspberry. When these open fully, smooth-textured seeds with scarlet or orange hues are displayed. Each plump seed remains attached firmly to the capsule. No other fruit in this part of the world exhibits such extreme variations in texture and color.

Innumerable hearts-a-bustin’ shrubs grow alongside our creek. If not, I would attempt to propagate it here and there.

Horticultural specialist Richard E. Bir noted in “Growing and Propagating Showy Native Woody Shrubs” (UNC Press, 1992) that his attempts to germinate the plant from seeds have resulted in “percentages” that “have always been low.” On the other hand, he found that “semi-hardwood cuttings root readily with no hormone treatment.” He also noted that, “Although hearts-a-bustin’ will tolerate very deep shade, it fruits best when grown in light shade with a minimum of fertilizer.”

The generic designation “Euonymus” means “good plant,” which is appropriate when applied to the pleasing, eye-catching fruits. But be aware that it isn’t a “good plant” in other ways. The seeds, leaves, bark, and twigs are reported in various sources to contain toxins that have caused the death of livestock and could result in human poisoning if ingested.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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