by Nancy Rose
February 9, 2016

fruit of hearts-a-bursting


eastern redbud leaf

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), seen here in fall color, has beautiful heart-shaped leaves.
Photo by John Ruter, UGA Bugwood.org

Love it or hate it, the annual barrage of heart-shaped objects and images is upon us as Valentine’s Day approaches. Whatever your romantic temperament, it’s easy to appreciate the elegant simplicity of the classic heart symbol. Its symmetric curves (which don’t much resemble a real human heart) have been applied decoratively for millenia, but early depictions of the heart symbol may have been based on heart-shaped plant leaves rather than an internal organ. The descriptive term for heart-shaped leaves (or leaf bases) is cordate, and it can be found in botanical names such as Tilia cordata (littleleaf linden) and Symphyotrichum cordifolium (heart-leaved aster). Other Arboretum trees with handsomely heart-shaped foliage include northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), red mulberry (Morus rubra), and eastern redbud [pdf] (Cercis canadensis).

Hearts abound in the common names of herbaceous garden plants including bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis), heartleaf brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla), and hearts-ease (Viola tricolor), the latter often better known by the name Johnny-jump-up. Among woody plants there’s heartleaf hornbeam (Carpinus cordata, 1468-77) and heartnut (Juglans ailantifolia var. cordiformis), a variety of Japanese walnut with distinctly heart-shaped nuts (see photo p. 7 [pdf]).

fruits of hearts-a-bursting (Euonymus americanus)

Hearts-a-bursting (Euonymus americanus 393-2004*A) lives up to its name when its bright red capsules burst open in the autumn. Photo by William Friedman

But the absolute winner in this category must be Euonymus americanus, a North American native shrub that has several properly Valentine-y common names: bursting-hearts, hearts-a-bursting, or the even folksier hearts a-bustin’. These names (as well as one of its others, strawberry-bush) come from the showy autumn fruit display of bumpy bright red capsules that split open to reveal dangling seeds clad in scarlet-orange arils. Somewhat disappointingly, the Arboretum’s database uses one of this plant’s least colorful common names, brook euonymus, which alludes to the species’ preference for moist soils near streams or swamps.

–Nancy Rose

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