15-21 September 2003
Installment #190--Visitor #

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Within the next fortnight, most deciduous trees in the Carolina Piedmont will begin to shut down warm-weather functions in anticipation of the inevitable cold, dark days of winter. In particular, water and minerals will cease to flow from twig to leaf, and dying foliage will reveal those brightly colored yellow and orange pigments that in spring and summer were masked by green chlorophyll. Tens of thousands of fall foliage watchers across the eastern U.S. will drive to the mountains or New England to see this annual autumnal spectacle, but we doubt anyone will observe anything quite as bright as what we're already enjoying here at Hilton Pond Center--the brilliant scarlet berries of Strawberry-bush.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Strawberry-bush is a shade-loving shrub that goes unnoticed for much of the year. In late spring, careful observers will spy its unusual greenish- white blossoms tinged with pink or purple. These quarter-inch five- petaled flowers (below right) are so flat they're almost two-dimensional, and they often form on thin paired stalks. After fertilization (pollinator unknown?) the flower's ovules ripen all summer, eventually forming a warty, globular fruit. This capsule resembles a strawberry-- hence the shrub's common name--but by late August it begins to swell and take on a hue more reminiscent of raspberries. Then, on just the right day in late September, the husk flies open to reveal up to five brilliant, shiny, scarlet berries--each dangling by a thread and far more colorful than any fall foliage we've ever seen. These eye-popping fruits are so bright and red that--when we come round a corner of Hilton Pond and see them for the first time each fall--they almost take our breath away, giving dual meaning to the shrub's alternative name of "Hearts-a-Bursting."

Strawberry-bush likewise caught the eye of early botanists who visited the New World, so much so that in 1663 it was among the first American plants exported back to Europe for horticultural use. These botanical explorers admired not only the dazzling fall fruit but also the lightly serrated dark green leaves (left) that in fall turn yellow or even white before falling to the woodland floor.

Another striking characteristic of Strawberry-bush is its opposite green branches and twigs (below right). Except in old main trunks, the bark remains smooth and unfragmented such that the green color stands out against the brown and seemingly lifeless winter woods. Deer appear to have a special fondness for these green twigs--they're even called "deer ice cream"--which may help account for the shrub's frequent failure to grow to the ten-foot height it can reach in protected areas. When browsed heavily, the plant often sends up sucker shoots from its root network, sometimes forming an open but single-species thicket.

Strawberry-bush is in the Bittersweet or Staff-Tree Family (Celastraceae), which has few representatives in North America. Its scientific epithet, Euonymus americanus, is derived from words meaning "good name," and is shared by a related plant called the Wahoo, E. atropurpureus; this purple-fruited tree-shrub is rare in the Carolinas but common in the eastern and central U.S. west of the Appalachians and north of coastal states. Two imported species, Burning Bush (E. alatus) and Spindletree (E. europaeus), are grown frequently as ornamentals and often escape--sometimes to the detriment of less- competitive native shrub species.

Many authorities report that the fruit and bark of the Strawberry-bush and its relatives contain glycosides that cause severe diarrhea in humans; when ingested the berries may also affect the heart, possibly causing cardiac arrest, and are especially dangerous for kids. In the words of one herbalist, all parts of the plant are "nauseous, emetic, and purgative"--good enough reasons for us not to be popping its scarlet berries for dessert. Regardless, Native Americans used the roots of Strawberry-bush to make a tea for stomach and urinary problems and uterine prolapse. The fruits apparently have no effect on Wild Turkeys, Wood Thrushes, Eastern Bluebirds, Yellow- rumped Warblers, and Northern Mockingbirds, which are among the few birds that consume the berries and disseminate the seeds. Although native deer browse Strawberry-bush with impunity, the leaves and twigs are considered to be deadly poisonous to domestic sheep and cattle.

Strawberry-bushes often grow along shaded streams, in river bottoms, or in moist open woods across the eastern U.S. and into Texas, so the vegetated banks of Hilton Pond appear to be an ideal habitat. We're glad of that, and rather than driving off to the mountains to watch the leaves change color we'll stay home and spend the next month taking pleasure from the smaller spectacle of our very own Strawberry-bush with its brilliant scarlet berries.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond" is written and photographed by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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Please report your sightings of

22-30 September 2003

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--6
American Redstart--3
Tennessee Warbler--3
Magnolia Warbler--3
Chestnut-sided Warbler--1
American Goldfinch--5
Black-throated Green Warbler--1
Eastern Wood-Pewee--1
Northern Cardinal--1
Gray Catbird--1
Carolina Wren--5
Scarlet Tanager--1
Swainson's Thrush--2
Downy Woodpecker--1
Gray-cheeked Thrush--1
Summer Tanager--1
Eastern Towhee--1

* = New species for 2003

17 species
38 individuals

55 species
921 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)

123 species
43.035 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)

Carolina Chickadee (1)
03/29/02--after 2nd year male

Tufted Titmouse (1)
06/11/02--2nd year female

None this week

--Through August, the greater Charlotte NC region in which Hilton Pond Center lies was moving rapidly toward 2003 being the wettest year on record, but a bone-dry September brought that pace to a screeching halt. Even Hurricane Isabel brought no precipitation to the area. Finally, on the night of 22 Sep, we got a good drenching of 1.2"--enough to knock the dust off and quench the thirst of late summer wildflowers.
Hilton Pond Banding Totals through Sep 2003 have been updated. See Table 1, Chart 1 and Chart 2.

--On 24 Sep, a young male
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (RTHU) became the 43,000th bird banded at Hilton Pond Center since 1982.
--Prior to this year, our latest adult
RTHUs at the Center females banded on 17 Sep in 1995, 1998, and 2002. This year, two adult female RTHUs have exceeded this date, including one banded on 27 Sep--TEN days later than the previous record. (Our latest RTHU ever was a juvenile female banded on 18 Oct 1986.)
--On 17 Sep we also trapped a juvenile female
RTHU at the Center that weighed 4.03g when we banded her at 10:50 am. We recaptured this same bird in a mist net at 7:35 pm, at which time she weighed a whopping 5.90g--an incredible weight gain of 1.57g, or 46% of her morning weight! Talk about putting on the fat!

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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in the U.S. or Canada in 2004 or later, contact
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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this website--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster