Burning Bush bids autumn adieu later than most trees

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. -- Autumn makes a blazing last stand with a shrub so striking it's called "Burning Bush." After its leaves fall, you know that winter can't be far behind.

Year after year, I wait impatiently for my euonymus bushes to put on this show. But they take their time. When most other trees are already bare the euonymus is hardly tinged with red.

Perhaps they won't make it this year, I think, as October wanes. Then, quite suddenly it seems, their red glory blazes up against a bare landscape. At this writing, it's early November and I'm out with my camera trying to capture this perfect moment in the southern New York countryside.

To be accurate, Japanese maples and some oaks are also still resplendent late in October and into November, but they're much larger and, to my eyes, do not make as brilliant a statement as the compact, intense euonymus.

There are more than 150 species of shrubs and small trees listed under euonymus, some evergreen and some deciduous and appropriate to various climes and different settings. Since my deciduous shrubs have been on the property from long before my time, I don't know exactly, but surmise from their performance they're the variety bearing the common name of burning bush.

Looking up plants under common names can be confusing since different plants can have the same name.

One reference I consulted, for example, listed burning bush as a summer cypress and also as a variety of oregano, but not as a euonymus. Under the botanic name in a couple of other books, however, I found Euonymus atropurpurea as burning bush, also known commonly as wahoo or Indian arrowhead. And I would look for that if I were buying some.

Since euonymus is easy to propagate, I've never needed to buy any. Shoots proliferate at the base of the shrubs and they come up easily, roots and all, sometimes by only pulling on them. I've made good screens just by digging holes, planting the shoots and keeping them well-watered at the outset. They eventually grow to a height of six to eight feet.

They may also be started from cuttings or by inserting the tip of a branch, about three inches long, into a sandy loam. They grow well in a variety of soils, but prefer a sunny location if they're to perform at their brightest in autumn.

Bonsai enthusiasts find both evergreen and deciduous varieties of euonymus likely subjects for their craft, with experts differing on whether their creations should look "restrained" or "unrestrained." Yearly repotting may be necessary during the first 10 years of the bonsai.

Lore of the euonymus has the name stemming from Euonyme, mythical mother of the Furies. This because of irritating properties of the shrub, whose fruit have been made into purgatives and as lotions for mange in horses and cattle. Toothpicks were made of the hard wood and one of its names, spindle tree, refers to its use in making skewers and spindles.

Green leaves of one species were said to be eaten in the Middle East to produce watchfulness.

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