A Hard Lesson Learned (Again) about Plant Selection

About 20 years ago, I planted a ground cover that was all the rage at the time. I decided that glossy, dark-green euonymus fortunei, a native of Asia, would be ideal to fill in prettily around shrubs and to block weeds. As years went by, a patch in Red Fox Garden succumbed to scale, and the euonymus at my house had a rude habit of climbing up the garage siding and suckering in until pulled down. However, its dense cover did block weeds, and I liked the look of it.

Download the Fall 2021 Newsletter

So, I was not prepared when Cousin David, who has spent years clearing invasive shrubs and vines from the Quarry Farm nature preserve, reported an unfamiliar branching vine climbing in a cluster of trees deep in the woods, well beyond my house and garden. It was neither poison ivy nor wild grape vine, and its leaves looked a little like myrtle, only larger. I made a discomfiting discovery: The invader was euonymus fortunei, my pretty ground cover gone rogue. Looking it up on the internet, I was shocked to learn that euonymus is now generally considered an invasive species, a landscaping no-no.

Horticultural websites discuss the aggressive nature of euonymus fortunei. One example is this from North Carolina State University Extension: “Some cultivars may be more of a vine and others more of a small shrub, but the vining cultivars and some shrubs can both be invasive… Climbing euonymus readily escapes into native forests and has no trouble dominating medium-sized trees. [It] is listed as invasive in North Carolina and in other states of the southeast and northeast. When used as ground cover for the showy leaves, it tends to climb if given support. . . .When this vine climbs trees it produces aerial rootlets along its branches. [Its small white berries] are eaten by some birds which is how the plant is spread and often how it becomes more invasive.” This is surely how euonymus flew from my garden into the woods of the preserve.

My experience with euonymus fortunei has been another hard lesson learned about plant selection over the years. When perusing catalogs and nurseries, I should try harder to temper my feverish impulses with some cautionary reminders: Choose natives to the area, more likely to settle companionably into the landscape. Don’t make impulsive purchases based solely on glowing descriptions, especially if a plant is an introduction, sometimes even a “new, improved” cultivar. Know soil (sand, loam, and/or clay), moisture and light preferences. Know how a plant propagates and spreads, so it can be contained if it sends out runners or produces thousands of seeds per plant. In general, know how it interacts with other plants and wildlife.

Better knowledge about such issues might have prevented invasions of bush honeysuckle and multiflora rose, and too many others, which were thought decades ago to have beneficial uses as wildlife food and cover and as living fencing, but became scourges to field and forest, including The Quarry Farm.

The Gardener at the Quarry Farm

Raiding the Pantry, Old School

When I first started reading, after the picture books but before Tolkein and Bradbury and Ellison, I was drawn to stories like The Swiss Family Robinson and My Side of the Mountain. They were tales about people who basically fell off the map, who by accident or design no longer had access to civilization. To me, in great part, civilization meant grocery stores, because, hey, you can always find shelter, build a fire, weave a poncho out of leaves, design a method for extracting potable water from the air. That’s easy, right? But food? Come on, what are you gonna do if you can’t jet down to the local 7-Eleven or Krogers or Piggly Wiggly and grab a loaf of Wonder Bread and a jar of Peter Pan?

Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth on black raspberry bramble

As it turns out, you make the whole world your larder. Man, but that grabbed by imagination; that a person could just walk out and pick breakfast, unearth lunch and chase down dinner was about the coolest thing I could think of. I used to hide bananas and bologna sandwiches (safely wrapped in plastic baggies) in our back yard. Then I’d set out in search of food, knowing that if I failed, I’d surely starve. Those were great days and, not surprisingly, given all the melodrama I invested in the whole process, that was some of the best food I ever ate. And now, well, I have the opportunity to do it for real.

So I do.

Right now, the raspberries are starting to come in. It’s early for them. I usually don’t start seriously picking until around the 4th of July. This year, however, they’ve been coming on since the beginning of June. You’ll probably hear me say this a lot this year, but it’s the weather: the mild winter, the rain we had earlier this spring and the hot and dry conditions we have now. Everything’s early. We had red-winged blackbirds on the property in March, blossoms on the blackberry brambles in late April, grasshoppers in the bottom land in mid-May and now, black raspberries.

Berry patches are rife with macroinvertebrates. Here, an immature wheel bug perches in a bowl of black raspberries.

Now I get to go and play castaway, claw my way through the wilderness until I’ve gathered enough sustenance to keep me alive for a few more hours. It’s hard and dangerous work, but food is life.

On the other hand, if the berries don’t pan out, there’s always that loaf of Wonder Bread and the jar of Peter Pan.