In a shaded area on the edge of my garden grows a strawberry bush (Euonymus americanus) that pretty much goes unnoticed – except in fall when it comes alive with sparks of red fruit. But like all garden plants this one has a story – one of fearsome gods and broken hearts. (In fact, one of its common names is hearts-a-bustin. And if you look at the backside of a fruit capsule, it’s easy to see the heart-shaped segments and understand why it bears that common name.)

Strawberry bush

One of the plant’s common names is hearts-a-bustin – thanks to how the warty seed capsule looks as it splits to reveal the berry.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Strawberry bush covered with berries

Strawberry bush shrubs are covered with showy seed capsules come fall.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

The plant is also known as American spindletree. This “spindletree” reference is transference for Euonymus europaeus, a tree-sized version native throughout Europe. The European species was once used as a source for wooden spindles, when wool was the primary choice for clothing.

No matter what you call it, Euonymus americanus is one of 130 species of euonymus, most of which are found in Asia, and it’s one of the three found in the woodlands of eastern North America. Strawberry bush grows as a 6- to 8-foot-tall, slender-stemmed, deciduous shrub in shady, moist locations in the Southeast and as far north as southern New York. Its slender stems are four-sided and bear opposite, 2-inch-long, lance-shaped leaves that turn subtle shades of red in fall. The plant tends to sucker from the roots, and in moist locations shrubs can form thickets.

Five-petaled, star-shaped greenish flowers about ¼ an inch across appear scattered about the branches in late spring after the leaves have appeared. Though attractive up close, they’re really too small to be effective from a distance.

In September, inflated, 3-5 lobed, warty, pinkish-red capsules about ¼ an inch in diameter dangle on slender peduncles. They begin popping open to display the pea-sized, bright orange-red berries inside. The common names “strawberry bush” and “hearts-a-bustin” come from this showy fruit display, which is very attractive on heavy-laden bushes.

Strawberry bush is a good shrub for naturalizing in out-of-the-way locations in your garden. It’ll grow in full shade or part sun, but afternoon sun should be avoided. The shrub does best in areas with some summertime moisture. In fact, strawberry bush is often found in the wild alongside streams where it will freely reseed with enough moisture.

If you’ve got a woodland area that’s just crying out for something bold and beautiful in fall, try strawberry bush – and mix it in with some other shady woodlanders like spicebush and witch hazel. While the plant subtly blends into the background most of the year, the bright red berry display and pretty red leaves in autumn will really set your natural areas ablaze with fall color!