As you walk through Forest Hill Park over the next month, you might easily miss the subtle flowering of one of our native understory shrubs, Euonymus americanus. Common names for this plant include Hearts-a-burstin’ and Strawberry bush – names that will be explained shortly. Strawberry bush is a small shrub that seldom gets over 10 feet tall and generally has an open, airy appearance. This growth form is partly due to its natural shaded habitat and the struggle for light. Plants growing in sunnier locations take on a more compact, “shrubbier” appearance. Strawberry bush leaves are relatively small; taper from an oval shape to a point, and the edges are “serrated” (series of little notches similar to a bread knife). Fortunately, there is one characteristic that sets strawberry bush apart from most other shrubs or small trees and is a great aid in identification. The branches are dark green in color. Even the main trunk is green for several years until turning gray. There are several strawberry bush plants growing near the path in Forest Hill Park that leads from the dam down to Riverside Drive. By mid-April, the plants have flower buds that are initially reddish in color. From late April and into May, the flowers are open; but you may have to get up close to the plant to see them. The flowers are less than ½ inch wide and have five small petals that are a light yellow-green in color. And the number of flowers on most plants growing in the shade is rather small. The word inconspicuous comes to mind when describing the flowering of strawberry bush. While strawberry bush may lack brilliance in the Spring, it more than makes up for it in the late Summer and Fall. Those inconspicuous little flowers become remarkable fruits. By late August, the fruits are turning bright red and the outer surface is “bumpy”. Suddenly, it becomes very obvious why strawberry bush is one of its common names. But the show is not over. By the middle of September, the fruits open wide to reveal four-five fleshy, bright orange seeds – the source of the other common name, hearts-a-burstin’. The fruits are not wildly popular with birds or mammals and so much of the fruit often remains on the plant well into Fall. Eventually the leaves turn bright crimson to add a final dash of color. Overall, strawberry bush makes a great native shrub for many home landscapes. It grows well in full to part shade and provides year-round interest including those distinctive green stems in Winter when any sign of green is most welcome. The one caution about strawberry bush is that deer love the foliage. It is hard to find a plant anywhere in Virginia that has not been browsed by deer. But if you can get the plant through its first year with minimal damage, it will reward you well into the future. Here’s hoping you get a chance to see some strawberry bush in bloom this Spring and know where to look for the Fall show.
This is where you can learn about the vast variety of plant and animal-life that makes Forest Hill Park its home.