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Stalking 'The Wild American Strawberry'

Stalking 'The Wild American Strawberry'

Q: A couple of weeks ago, our Public Radio show, "You Bet Your Garden" got a very sweet phone call from a guy named Jeremiah in Tennessee. He explained that he's now blind, but back when he was sighted, he stumbled onto a beautiful plant growing in the woods. He said that he researched it and thinks it might have been something he called a "wild American strawberry bush", but wasn't sure. He called it "the most amazing plant", and wanted to know where he could buy one and how to grow it.

Now whenever I make a live appearance, people always ask if I research and prepare my answers in advance for the phone calls we take on the show--but my response to Jeremiah clearly showed that the answer is no, no and no!

I did venture a guess after he mentioned the plant having 'pods' and described the shape and size of the fruits, as a lot of these descriptions fit one of my favorite 'bad' plants: The Wineberry. Officially classified as an invasive, it's either an escaped ornamental or a raspberry relative from Asia that was brought here for raspberry breeding but escaped. Either way, it got into the wild; and we here in the Northeast often see it growing on roadsides and in the woods.

(At first, I didn't know if the colorful fruits were safe to eat, but now I specifically look for them every summer; they are delicious.)

Anyway, I thought I might be right with that guess—especially when he also said it was acting like a vine, kind of crawling up the side of a tree. Wineberry canes are very long and arching; and because birds eat the fruits and then 'deposit' the seed somewhere else later on, you often see the canes arching up tree trunks (underneath where those birds were roosting).

But wineberries have deadly thorns; those juicy berries come with a painful price. And Jeremiah said that if his plant had thorns, they were small and blunt. So I'm furiously thumbing through the big plant books I DO carry into the studio every week and coming up empty.

My producer is in the control room trying computer searches, and all she can find is another of my favorite plants—the 'Alpine strawberry', a tiny but delicious ancestor of the modern strawberry that grows in small clumps and was originally a wild plant—so it's sometimes called 'wild strawberry'.

The other plant that keeps coming up is the weedy ground cover that lawn owners despise whose common name is also 'wild strawberry'—but that vining plant (with very pretty but totally inedible small 'fruits') always stays flat to the ground. So I bailed out, admitted I was stumped and said that I would try and find out for him. I went home and finally found what looks like a match at a website run by The Hilton Pond Research Center in South Carolina—and it is not a vine!

(Jeremiah had said that his closest match online was called a 'bush', even though the plant he saw looked like a vine to him—but I only found it when I stopped using 'vine' in my searches.)

My official answer is that the 'mystery plant' is a staggeringly beautiful native ornamental whose basic common name is just "Strawberry bush". The "American" part comes from its scientific name: Euonymus americanus. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center says that it's known under many names, including American strawberry bush, Brook euonymus, Hearts-a-burstin', Bursting-heart, and Wahoo.

Wahoo?! (I just read 'em; I don't write 'em.) Anyway, it's a member of the Bittersweet family that is described as "an airy, upright shrub that can reach 12 feet in height." So it could certainly look just like a vine in the right circumstances. (And call me crazy, but this photo of "American bittersweet", a plant in a slightly different genus, sure looks a lot like the plant our caller was describing!)

The {quote} 'strawberries' that so captivated Jeremiah are bright red fruits with a strawberry-ish texture that open up—like pods, just as he described on the air—to allow seeds that look like bright orange corn kernels to hang down off the outer edges of the fruit capsule, like crystals hanging from a chandelier.

Yes, it looks breathtaking. But here's a big warning: It could be that literally. Although the roots of the plant were used medicinally by Native Americans, The Hilton Pond Center warns that the berries are toxic (at least to humans; apparently some wild birds love them). And while the plant itself has to be protected from Bambi browsing—the uniquely green winter branches are commonly known as 'deer ice cream'—horses and other livestock need to be kept away from it.

But Jeremiah can grow it. In fact, it's a great choice for any sun-challenged gardener, as it's an understory plant that naturally grows in shade. Light shade is best if you want lots of those colorful (but remember, non-edible) fruits, but the shrub itself will do fine in even full shade.

It can be grown from those amazing looking seeds, but the process is darned tricky. Best to start with small plants, which are available from a good number of suppliers. And remember to keep an eye out for it in the wild—it's a native plat that occurs naturally in heavily wooded areas across a wide section of the Eastern United States. Just remember two things:

    1) Don't collect native plants from the wild; they have enough threats to deal with. Always buy plants that were raised in cultivation and NOT taken from the wild.
    2) Don't try to eat those pretty fruit-like things, and:
    3) Protect the plants from deer—especially in the winter.

(Okay—that's three things. Now you know that my math is just as good as my plant guessing skills!)

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