Strawberry bush is native over much of eastern North America. Its range stretches from New York down to Florida and then west to Oklahoma and east Texas. A member of the Celastraceae (bittersweet) family, it is hardy in USDA Zones 5-9. Specimens usually grow from 4 to 8 feet tall and sucker to form clumps. Inconspicuous flowers are followed by showy seed capsules.
The flowers themselves will likely be missed unless a person is consciously looking for them. However, upon close inspection, they are quite intriguing. Flowers are only about a third of an inch wide, and they stretch out on relatively long pedicels and lie flat against the leaves. Five roundish, veined petals that are pale yellow and sometimes blushed with a purplish to reddish cast surround a smooth, round disk-shaped device that covers the ovary. A small, yellow, pollen-producing anther is affixed to the disk-shaped device between each petal, making five in all. A tiny stigma pokes through the center of the disk, all sticky and ready to be pollinated by a passing insect.
It is the seed capsules that give the plant its common names and makes it a standout in the fall garden or woods. They will not be missed, even by the most casual observers. Very unique, four-lobed warty, scarlet capsules encase four to five bright red, pulpy seeds. When the capsules burst open, the seeds are revealed. The seeds remain attached to the pod for a few weeks.
Leaves of the strawberry bush are two to three inches long and have finely-toothed margins. In fall they turn shades of orange and red, prolonging the show well into the fall. Identification is easy, even in winter, when one encounters the four-angled, green stems that are obvious in an otherwise brown landscape.
Strawberry bush is at home in damp woodlands underneath the shade of taller trees, so do your best to simulate its natural habitat. Provide humus-rich, well-drained but moist, slightly acid soil, and part to full shade. This native plant is usually pest and disease resistant, but Euonymus scale and crown gall can be problematic in home landscapes.
Propagation is easy from cuttings. Either greenwood cuttings taken in summer or semi-hardwood cuttings taken in fall root easily if placed in damp soil or sharp sand. Clumps can be divided, if desired. Starting from seeds is a bit trickier, as seeds must be given about three months of cold treatment before being planted. One reference recommends picking the seed capsules just before they split open, and then drying the seeds out on a screen. After that, store in sealed containers in the refrigerator for about three months and then plant. This treatment simulates what would happen naturally in a normally cold winter followed by warmer spring and summer weather.
Strawberry Bush in the Landscape
When placing strawberry bush in the landscape, remember its natural occurrence under the shade of tall trees. Place it in such a place, but get it near a path or edge where its interesting fruits can be observed at close range. Expect the strawberry bush to form a modest clump, but don't worry about it spreading in unwanted places, for it is not even moderately aggressive and would certainly never be considered invasive.
Strawberry bush is an excellent addition to a wildlife garden. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds can be seen nectaring on the blossoms, and the seeds are eaten by several species of birds and small mammals. The foliage is very popular with the deer population, which may or may not be a good quality for a landscape plant. Fruits have served several medicinal purposes, especially for the Native Americans, but they are poisonous and should not be consumed.
Several relatives of the strawberry bush include Euonymus atropurpurea (wahoo), an understory woodland species that is native to the eastern United States. Euonymus alata (burning bush or winged Euonymus) is a Chinese native that is invasive in certain areas and even prohibited in some states. Euonymus fortunei (wintercreeper) is a popular groundcover that is native to China, Korea, and Japan. It, too, has invasive tendencies in some portions of its hardiness range. Euonymus europaea, a European native, has also escaped cultivation in parts of the United States.
As usual, choosing native plants eliminates the possibility of introducing another exotic invasive species to our woodlands. Both the wahoo and the strawberry bush are excellent choices in areas where they are hardy. That is not to say that we don't have some perfectly wonderful exotics that are dependable landscape specimens. Unfortunately, the Euonymus species that come from China, Korea, and Japan, due to their tendency to become invasive, may not be the best choice for environmentally sensitive landscapes.
Thanks to raisedbedbob for his image of strawberry bush blooming in the landscape,
and to watercan2 for the excellent close-up of the flower.