GENERA: Celastrus, Euonymus
Euonymus spp.—Wahoo; burning bush
FAMILY: Celastraceae—the Staff-tree Family
Represented in Pennsylvania by several native and introduced ornamental species, this family consists of trees, shrubs, or climbing vines. The sepals, petals, and stamens usually number 4 or 5. A nectar disc is present around the ovary. The fruit is often a capsule with the seeds wholly or partly surrounded by a fleshy, brightly colored membrane called the aril.
PHENOLOGY: Both Celastrus and Euonymus bloom May through June.
DISTRIBUTION: Celastrus scandens L. is a native plant of roadsides and woodlots, usually in rich soil. Celastrus orbiculatus Thunb., an introduced plant from eastern Asia, has escaped from sites where it is cultivated, especially in the southeastern corner of the Commonwealth and along the Susquehanna River drainage.
Euonymus atropurpureus Jacq. is native and found in moist woods; E. europaeus L. is a European native escaped from cultivation Euonymus species are often cultivated as ornamental shrubs for their brilliant autumn foliage.
PLANT CHARACTERISTICS: Celastrus is dioecious, some plants producing only male flowers and others only female flowers. The whitish or greenish flowers are 5-merous; fruits: 3- valved, orange when mature, splitting to expose a fleshy red aril. The vines climb over vegetation and can be a tangling nuisance.
Euonymus plants are shrubs or small trees with flowers: perfect, 4- to 5-merous; fruit: 3- to 5-lobed, bright red or orange aril.
POISONOUS PARTS: Leaves, bark, and fruit are known to be poisonous in E. atropurpureus and E. europaeus and suspected to be poisonous in both Celastrus species.
SYMPTOMS: No cases of Celastrus poisoning could be located. Symptoms in Euonymus poisoning include: diarrhea, vomiting, unconsciousness, and mental disorders.
POISONOUS PRINCIPLES: Peptide and sesquiterpene alkaloids may be responsible for Euonymus toxicosis. The toxins act as violent purgatives.
CONFUSED TAXA: The seeds covered by brightly covered arils make these two genera distinct from other woody plants in the Commonwealth. Euonymus is a shrub or small tree with simple, opposite leaves, whereas Celastrus is a woody vine with simple, alternate leaves. The two Celastrus species can be distinguished by terminal panicles and leaves twice as wide as long in C. scandens and axillary cymes and broad leaves in C. orbiculatus.
SPECIES OF ANIMALS AFFECTED: Horses are recorded to have been poisoned by leaves and children have been poisoned by the fruits of Euonymus. Bittersweet is often brought into the home in autumn for its decorative fruits. Children should be alerted to the potential danger of this plant.
TREATMENT: (11a)(b); (26)
OF INTEREST: Celastrus scandens has been used in eastern North America as a folk medicine to treat vaginal discharge (leukorrhea). In other parts of the world species in this genus have been used variously as abortifacients, stimulants, emetics, and cathartics, and the leaves chewed to relieve toothache.