Euonymus planipes (or is it?!)

As British gardens seem to be getting smaller and smaller now, with new houses crammed in closer and closer, it’s important to keep in mind plants that could be used effectively in these spaces to great effect. There is also a great deal of attention directed at native species, and while not all native species are suitable for all gardens it is good that a ‘plantsman’s eye’ is cast over native species to see if they can be used in cultivated spaces.

While gardens completely made up of native species are still in the minority it’s also true that tastes are moving away from the conspicuously cultivated plants, thinking here of brightly coloured foliage and flowers in displays of horticultural novelties, and towards planting that is more in harmony with the surrounding landscape. Whether the plants are truly ‘native’ or not isn’t important; what’s important is ‘the look’.

When we think of this style of gardening our minds tend to think of the work of Piet Oudolf, Dan Pearson etc. We think of ‘New Nasturalism’ in terms of large-scale plantings of grasses and herbaceous plants, but more should be done towards ‘New Naturalism’ with woody plants. It’s important that we do this; in smaller spaces it’s not possible to create vast landscapes of herbaceous plants and there are often considerations such as shelter and creating privacy to bear in mind. In addition the reliance on herbaceous species for wildlife is narrow-minded, and ignores the needs of species that need woody plants too. Birds might indeed feed on the seeds of ornamental grasses in the garden but by and large they nest in the trees and shrubs…

Euonymus europaeus is a fairly well known native species in the UK. It’s often sold as a native hedging plant and the cultivar ‘Red Cascade’ is a deservedly popular free-fruiting large shrub/small tree. While you could do worse than E. europaeus ‘Red Cascade’ in your garden there is an assumption it seems that this is about as good as Euonymus can get. I disagree, and offer by way of an example of an alternative Euonymus planipes.

Euonymus planipes

I first came across Euonymus planipes in a garden I used to maintain. It was a very handsome shrub, rising from a single trunk and branching outwards to make a charmingly open habit. Once I saw its large fruits and how effective the autumn colour was thanks to the fairly large leaves of this species I was enamoured.

Euonymus planipes is native to Japan, Korea, and parts of China up into the far eastern parts of Russia. It was originally introduced to the UK in 1895, when the Arnold Arboretum in the USA sent seed to Kew Gardens. It’s fair to say that this species wasn’t instantly recognised for its beauty, but as interest in the genus is picking up I hope this species becomes more widely recognised and appreciated.

One of the great challenges to this species in cultivation has been confusion around its name. E. planipes is similar to the European E. latifolius, and it’s believed that the two species have been confused in cultivation. Ernest Wilson, that great name of early 20th century botany, exploration and plantsmanship, was very much enamoured with E. latifolius.

The name ‘Burning Bush’, however, would apply with greater accuracy to E. planipes whose fiery crimson fruits with orange-coloured seeds are more brilliant and handsome than those of any other species. This is a bush from five to eight feet tall, of compact habit with ascending stems and broad, dark green leaves which become purple tinted in the autumn. The fruits, thick, massive and angular, each three-quarters of an inch across and borne in loose clusters, are suspended on slender three to six inch stalks. Laden with a multitude of fruits in October a bush from the near distance glows with intense scarlet like unto live coals of a charcoal fire. There is nothing more wonderful in fruit among hardy woody plants than E. planipes which came to us from north Japan.”

Ernest H. Wilson, Aristocrats Of The Garden (volume 2)
A hint of autumn. This species probably colours up better in more continental climates

However reading through W.J. Bean’s entry for E. latifolius it would seem that Bean had different ideas.

Excepting the native E. europaeus, this is the most ornamental of all the genus in our gardens; its individual fruit is much larger and more effective than that of the common spindle-tree but is not borne in such profusion. Grown as a small tree in rich deep soil, it will reach 20 ft in height, and such a specimen, hung with its long-stalked fruit in September, is one of the most beautiful objects of autumn.”

W.J. Bean, Trees And Shrubs Hardy In The British Isles (8th edition)

So who was right? The differences between the two species are minor; E. planipes has a conical top to each fruit, while the wings of each lobe of the fruits are more rounded in E. planipes than they are it E. latifolius. Given that the species are so similar maybe both authors were right and actually E. planipes and E. latifolius are of equal high merit. Given this description I’m left wondering whether the plant photographed, sourced from a reputable nursery, is in fact E. latifolius rather than E. planipes. It would be much easier to identify which one is which if I could compare a fruit with a plant of absolutely certain identity, but I no longer maintain this garden (and can only hope that this fine plant has been spared the wrath of the chainsaw) and where could I get a fruit of absolute certain identity? The RHS Journal of September 1933 mentions, on page 375, both species growing in the arboretum at Westonbirt here in the UK. I could go there and take a look for myself but after 89 year a) are the plants still labelled correctly, b) were they correctly labelled in the first place, and c) are the originals even still there?! The plant shown here is labelled E. planipes in good faith.

Euonymus planipes- or is it?

I’ve yet to find a Euonymus that is difficult to grow. I suspect there may be some species out there, probably from warmer areas, that could prove challenging outdoors in the UK but there are sufficient species to enjoy without trying more difficult ones. Euonymus seem to dislike extremes of wet or dry conditions, and some do better than others on alkaline soils. However on neutral to acidic soils E. planipes is delightful.