For those who covet the bright red foliage of the invasive euonymus burning bush, consider the eastern wahoo. Also known as spindle tree and eastern burning bush, eastern wahoo has pinkish-red fall color, exotic-looking fruits that are loved by birds, and the ability to grow in a wide range of soil and light conditions. The best fall color is in full sun, but the shrub also grows in dry shade. It typically grows 10-15 feet tall as an understory shrub with an upright form and spreading, irregular crown. In warmer climates, it may grow to 25 feet. It spreads by reseeding and suckering to form thickets, which makes it an excellent choice for a hedge. Besides its fall color, its most interesting feature is its uniquely shaped, reddish seed capsules that split open to reveal scarlet-coated seeds. The bursting pods give wahoo one of its common names, “hearts bursting with love.” The specific epithet atropurpureus means “dark purple,” probably in reference to either the color of the flowers or the stunning fall foliage.
Native habitats include moist woodlands, shaded riverbanks, woodland borders, meadows and prairies, and thickets. Use in rain gardens, woodland areas, naturalized areas, or as an informal hedge.
Grows 12-25’ tall and 15-25’ wide.
Grows in full or part sun and tolerates full shade.
Prefers moist to medium conditions and fertile, loamy soils but adapts to a wide array of well-drained soil types.
Small, forked cymes of 7-20 flowers bloom on year-old stems for about a month. Each flower is 1/3” wide and consists of 4 triangular petals, 4 sepals, 4 short stamens with yellow anthers, and a pistil with a short style. Flowers are replaced by 4-lobed pink or red seed capsules that split to reveal 4 fleshy red fruits containing two seeds.
Oval-shaped leaves are dark green and up to 4½” long and 2” wide. They are hairless on the upper surface and finely pubescent on the underside.
Trunk and larger branches have thin, gray, slightly rough bark. New branches are green and 4-sided, developing lines of corky tissue that temporarily give it a striped appearance.
Wahoo is a host plant to 14 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including cecropia, ailanthus silk, small engrailed, and American ermine moths. The flowers attract small bees, beetles, and various flies. Deer and rabbits browse the leaves and young shoots. Birds such as northern flickers, brown thrashers, catbirds, eastern bluebirds, cardinals, and eastern towhees eat the fruits.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
The powdered bark was used by Native Americans and pioneers as a purgative.
Caution: The bark, leaves, and fruits of eastern wahoo are poisonous if consumed.
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