The few fruits that hung on the tree were in rose-pink still not ripe enough to reveal their orange-red arils which are enjoyed by upland ground birds and song birds. (Left) Eastern wahoo was difficult to find in greater numbers even in a horticultural mecca like the Philadelphia Region. Perhaps its high profile invasive Eurasian cousins the European euonymus aka spindle tree (Euonymus europeaus) or burning bush (Euonymus alatus) pushed it into obscurity. Or, maybe it was mistaken for the invasive forms because eastern wahoo’s other common names are spindle tree and burning bush.
The word wahoo translates to arrow
Eastern wahoo acquired its Latin species name atropurpureus from its deep purple flowers found in cymes growing in the axils of the leaves. The flowers have four or sometimes five petals that have the smell of carrion to attract beetles and flies. Like other euonymus species, the leaves are opposite and oval in shape and have fine serrations along the leaf margin with hairs beneath. The young bark is green with corky winged growth creating a slightly square stem.
Eastern wahoo can be planted in full sun to part shade and likes moist soils. It’s tolerant of flooding and low lying areas and can handle a range of soils including a higher pH. Wahoo can be used as a screen, understory in a woodland, along a streambank, in a hedge border and yes, in a small garden. The average size for this plant is fifteen to twenty feet in height.
The journal references for eastern wahoo were mainly medicinal even though the plant is considered poisonous. It has similar properties as digitalis. A white powder called euonymin produced from the bark of the root was used in small quantities to heal stomach issues, gallbladder problems, heart conditions and edema (dropsy). There were numerous articles found on the subject in the American Journal of Pharmacy published by the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy between the mid part of the 19th and early 20th century after that there are few references to the plant. In the 21st century references have been made about the plant online and in some cases the commentary mentions the plants rarity in some areas of the country. This underutilized native should be considered when nurseries are looking to expand their diversity. Let’s bring back a plant that has been long over looked.
Photo above shows striking foliage in late October in Delaware.