This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V24", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
It is always a mystery to those familiar with the native flora of our fields and forests why so few of our common plants, shrubs, trees, etc, are utilized by the American landscape gardener in his efforts to procure suitable material to beautify our lawns and the public parks, especially as there seems to be actually nothing in the market, in many instances, exactly appropriate for many a contemplated improvement. Probably the reason best assigned for this omission is contained in the two words, too common. Be this as it may, the truth remains indisputable, that many of our native plants, shrubs, etc, are just as suitable and effective, for service in many a desirable place on the lawn, as though they had traversed the broad ocean, possessed an almost unpronounceable name, and commanded a fabulous price in the market for their possession. Of course all our native plants are not desirable for cultivation ; in fact some are a source of great annoyance to the cultivator by taking entire possession of the ground they occupy, i. e., from their wonderful power of increasing both by suckers from the roots, and also by their stems and prostrate branches that reach the ground, taking root and spreading with great rapidity to the exclusion of everything else.
Others are quite showy and effective, but are such great feeders they soon absorb all the strength and nutriment from the ground. These, by common consent, have received the popular name of weeds. However, it would be very difficult for any one to define, with any degree of accuracy, the exact limit of the term weeds.
In wandering through the fields and forests in autumn, after the highly-colored fruit and foliage of nearly all our ornamental vegetation has disappeared, nothing seems more attractive than the shrubs so common in many parts of the country, and withal so familiar by name to most of our people, under the popular name of wax work or bitter-sweet, Celastrus scandens, and Waa-hoo, or strawberry bush, Euonymus Ameri-canus, and E. atropurpureus. Both the bittersweet and strawberry bush belong to the same natural order of plants, for which Linnaeus adopted the old Greek misname of Celastraceae. These three species, together with three other varieties or sub-species, are the only representatives of this order of plants to be found in the northern portion of the United States, although the order is represented in the United States, principally South, by eight genera, sixteen species and three varieties, and about forty genera and nearly three hundred species have been described by botanists and travelers from all parts of the world, all, or nearly all of which are indigenous to the temperate zones.
Perhaps no other hardy native vine of the United States is so widely known by name, or so completely interwoven in the popular romance of the new world, by popular writers of fiction, as the bitter-sweet, or, as it is sometimes called, the wax work, and still its identification is almost unknown to most of our people. To fully realize its grandeur it must be seen in its native habitat in autumn, creeping along the neglected fence rows and thickets, or climbing and twisting among the branches of a low-growing tree or shrub, often from thirty to forty, or even more, feet in length, with its entire, oblong, pointed and thin leaves and highly ornamental fruit hanging from the numerous little terminal fruit spurs or short branches along its entire length.
Sometimes we find two or three stems growing erect from the same root crown, and supporting themselves by the united stems twisting around each other, like the strands of a rope, for mutual support, for ten to fifteen feet and forming a most curious object. The flowers are produced in June, are greenish white, very small and inconspicuous; indeed they would not usually be noticed by a casual observer without attention being called to their presence, but they are soon followed by the large clusters of fruit, each one (fruit) of which is round, or indefinitely three-sided, about the size of peas, and enclosed in a thin, horny shell, or capsule, of a bright, orange-red color, which, when ripe (in September), burst from the apex into three parts, and turning back, remain attached to the stem, and reveal a bright, scarlet, soft, fleshy or waxy pulp, (aril), which hang to the vine during autumn and winter, or at least would remain there if the birds (some of which are very fond of them) did not devour them with such avidity.
Now let us imagine this native vine planted in clusters so as to give it more of a dense appearance than it usually presents in its uncultivated condition, and trained over a trellis; or what is still better, planted and trained to creep around and through the branches of a low-growing tree, particularly a native thorn or red haw, Crataegus, - especially the evergreen variety, if it can be procured - and you certainly have one of the most ornamental, hardy vines to be procured from the scant list, that will survive the occasional severe winters of the temperate zone. Of course further south the list of hardy vines for that latitude would be more extended, but probably few plants would be as ornamental during winter even there as this one. Its bright, orange and scarlet fruit, with its singular flower shape pods turned back when ripe, would be a very attractive feature on the lawn, and the class of birds that usually eat the fruit would not be liable to molest it when planted upon a lawn, and would in a great measure neutralize the apparent desolation during the seemingly lifeless (to vegetable forms) winter months of a flowerless and leafless lawn of the temperate zone.
A fit companion for the bitter-sweet, to plant on the lawn, and the only other representative of this order of plants in the northern part of the United States, is the Waa-hoo or strawberry bush, Euonymus, which also shares the same neglect at the hands of the landscape gardener, and is nearly equally as unknown to the most of our people except by name. It is occasionally seen in cultivation in America, and when properly cared for makes a most favorable impression, even when growing side by side with more pretentious and costly shrubs. By reference to standard botanies we find scientific botanists make three native species and three other varieties of the Euonymus found in the United States all very similar in their general character, and all equally desirable for planting on the lawn with other shrubs, differing as they do in so many important features. If we go into the fields and study them in their native habitat, we shall find them growing in rich, loamy or peaty soil, usually quite moist, and that they are a slender, low-growing shrub, with very peculiar four sided or nearly square branches; that while some varieties only grow from one to two feet high, others often reach the height of fifteen or eighteen feet, with more or less oblong, shining (Nuttall says opaque) green leaves, which in autumn assume a most brilliant, bronzy-crimson color.
The flowers are small and insignificant, of a dull, bronzy-green or purplish color, and borne in small clusters in June (usually three or more together) from a long stem at the axils of the leaves. Like the bitter-sweet the fruit of the Euonymus is the great object of interest, and ripening in fall (October) also remains hanging to the branches all winter. It is deeply three-lobed in E. Americanus and its varieties, but four. lobed in E. atropurpureus, and is covered with a thin, hard, bony pod, or capsule, usually of a bright crimson or orange red color, while they are often seen (especially under cultivation) of all the shades of red- to a creamy white. These pods bursting open from the apex along the three or four ridges of the lobes, when the fruit is ripe, and turning back remain attached to the stem, thus revealing a bright, scarlet, pulpy meat (fruit), enclosing the seed. Unlike the bitter-sweet, the fruit is not greedily devoured by birds; indeed it is usually credited with containing a poisonous acid very destructive to stock, which Prof. Gray tells us Tourne-fort has aptly turned to good account by ironically giving the genus a name which, in the original Greek, signifies "good food".
Although the Euonymus makes a very pleasing object with its highly ornamental, bell like fruit hanging from the numerous branches during winter, when planted on the lawn, it is still more attractive when planted in thickets or groups of other shrubs, a portion of which retain their foliage the year round, i. e. evergreens. There can be no doubt of the utility of many of our native shrubs and vines being eminently adapted for service on our lawns and public parks, and profiting by the experience of our most successful cultivators, it is to be hoped that more use will be made, in the near future, of these worthy plants.