Planting euonymus is a bit like eating prunes – we know we should but when presented with more exciting things – well it’s a hard thing to do.
Most of us walk past the pots of either E. fortunei or E. japonicus and don’t give them a second thought. It is only at this time of year when the range of plants is severely limited, especially for pots and hanging baskets, that I give them much attention. Euonymus japonicus is, potentially, the most exciting since it has larger leaves, often with a mirror-like finish. It is usually grown as a free-standing shrub but is sometimes grown as a hedge. It withstands regular and severe pruning, dense shade and neglect but the problem is that if it is badly treated it is often horribly disfigured with mildew. And then there is the problem of scale insect which coats the stems so thickly they look like ‘Twiglets’ rather than twigs. Better growing conditions and a dose of systemic insecticide will help clear up the plants. That it is tolerant of wind and sea spray became evident to me when I noticed that it was the plant that grew up the wall and under the promenades at Madeira Drive, Brighton, West Sussex. What those ancient, sunburned, windswept plants must have seen: hundreds of fights between mods and rockers, hundreds of London to Brighton runs, car rallies and bike trips. So this is an adaptable plant that can grow from 60cm to 6m (with support) and is commonly available, either as tiny rooted cuttings or big pots of well grown plants.
Euonymus fortunei seems to have attracted more attention from plant breeders and is a more useful plant, perhaps. It too will grow in sun or shade, is evergreen, is available in variegated forms and withstands pruning. It is a much laxer plant and is usually grown as ground cover but could be clipped as a low hedge, to replace box, and if grown against a fence or wall or tree it will send up long stems with aerial roots and change its habit and looks, rather like ivy. These ‘adult’ shoots also flower and fruit more freely too.
Euonymus do not have exciting flowers. They are usually small, fleeting and green with four petals. Sometimes they are noticeable due to their large numbers but no one would plant a euonymus for flowers. When I was Head Gardener at Myddelton House there was a euonymus there, that was presumably planted by E A Bowles himself. It was a large, spreading, arching shrub with sparse foliage and large, airy clusters of small, green flowers. It was curious but not attractive and the flowers smelled so awful that walking past it when in bloom made you think you had stepped in something a dog left behind.
The flowers are largely bisexual even though those of Celastrus, a beautiful twining shrub that is now a nuisance in some American states, is dioecious with either male or female flowers on each plant.
But although euonymus generally are not exciting in spring or summer, they suddenly attract our attention at this time of year. Euonymus alatus is one of the best and most reliable of all shrubs for autumn colour and the leaves reliably turn pink and crimson around now. Sometimes the display is augmented by the strange fruits.
Euonymus fruit are attractive in the garden. They are usually rather ‘square’ and each of the two to four compartments contains one or more seeds which are coated with a fleshy aril. As the plastic-like fruits split the seeds are revealed and they often hang on a thread, the aril giving the seed a contrasting colour to the fruit case.
Two attracted my attention the other day at Glasnevin and both are large shrubs that are largely ignored by gardeners but would be worthy additions to any garden.
Euonymus hamiltonianus is a large shrub or small tree. These photos are taken a little early because the leaves have yet to take on their spectacular autumn colouring. But even so the fruits are looking good.
Native to eastern Asia it deserves to be better known. The same can be said for the semi-evergreen E. grandiflorus. This has large, shiny foliage. The name ‘grandiflorus’ is apt since the yellowish flowers are large for the genus but it is not spectacular and it is in autumn that the plant earns its keep.
This will soon look far more spectacular when the fruits ripen and open.
Like most euonymus they are not fussy about soil and tolerate lime.