Fortune's spindle
by Spider and Anita Barbour
January 08, 2009 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
With my brain trolling for a topic for this 2009 debut of the Nature Walk column I set off to pick up Chinese takeout. As I started the car, through the windshield I spied an old friend, which I instantly seized upon as the subject of this article.

To begin, let's go back to when, where, and how we met. It was about 25 years ago when I still picked up the odd job now and then. Usually these were outdoor tasks like yard cleaning and gardening that kept me in touch with nature. I habitually rescued living plants that would have joined the garden waste stream, bringing them home, and sometimes remembering to plant them before they languished from neglect or total forgetfulness.

One made me feel guilty because I had inadvertently severed it while trimming the weeds around a tree trunk, at a friend's home in Woodstock. It was a vine with simple, even-toothed, Kelly-green leaves. The vine had been clinging handily to the tree trunk, and still was, but the portion above the cut was doomed to wither. I pulled it off the trunk, to which it clung harder than I expected. I examined it to see what gave it its grip. The grippers proved to be little more than stout hairs or bristles, kinky and blunt, belying their tenacity. Modest as it was I had never seen anything quite like it. Its novelty and my regret compelled me to bring it home with the intent to look it up in a book. But as I often did with such specimens I left it in the car and only noticed it again several days later.

At that point I might have brought it in the house for identification, but I was about to leave, so instead I put it in water to keep it fresh. Despite my neglect it wasn't visibly wilted. I figured I'd deal with it later. It turned out, again, to be days later. When I noticed it sticking out of its jar on a flat rock under the mulberry tree, I was rushing out again, but I noticed its water was nearly gone. I picked up the jar and saw that it was sprouting delicate roots. I gave it more water, and when I returned I planted it carefully at the trunk of the mulberry. Such a stubborn, hopeful cutting deserved a chance I thought, and if it survived I'd have plenty of time to identify it.

Several years later and several feet of growing farther up the mulberry tree, I did. I was perusing one of my favorite botany books, Norman Taylor's "The Guide to Garden Shrubs and Trees," with beautiful, delicate illustrations by Eduardo Salgado. On page 60 under the heading "Erect, Often High-climbing Vines with Opposite Simple Leaves" was my hardy climber of trunks, Euonymus fortunei. Taylor's opening description is typical of his poetic efficiency of language: "A valuable evergreen Asiatic creeper, tightly clinging to brick or stone, less so to wood, because of its aerial roots at the joints which have minute sucking discs."

Accumulating knowledge about this vine has been a process as long and languid as its own lengthening up the mulberry tree. For several years I had no common name for it. Then I ran across "winter creeper" and later "fortune-vine" and "Fortune's Euonymus." While writing this I came across my favorite yet, "Fortune's spindle." A member of the bittersweet family, Celastraceae, fortune-vine is in the same genus as the spindle bushes, such as winged spindle bush (Euonymus alatus) and European spindle bush (E. europaeus). We have one of each of these about 25 feet from the mulberry with the Fortune's spindle.

The plant's name is derived not from the word "fortune" but the surname "Fortune." Robert Fortune was a mid-19th century Scottish botanist who worked for the British East India Tea Company searching for new tea varieties in east Asia. He is credited with breaking China's longstanding world monopoly on the tea trade. He also introduced many exotic ornamental plants into English gardens, among them the evergreen vine that now bears his name. In 1907 Euonymus fortunei was introduced into the United States as an ornamental ground cover. Its present North American range includes Ontario and 25 states in the East and Midwest.

In Tennessee and Wisconsin Fortune's spindle is officially branded as an invasive pest, the equivalent of being on a "wanted" poster in the post office or on the door of a Western saloon. It is a tough hombre, as my severed, twice abused cutting proved over its first quarter-century. No longer a sprig, it now towers ten feet or more into the mulberry, with numerous branches, a new feature that appeared only a few years ago.

The branches are a sign that our good Fortune is growing up. As a winter creeper creeps toward the crown of a tree, catching more sunlight, it branches and spreads, assuming the form of a tree. This is the onset of maturity. The fortune-vine may come to cover the top of tree, even cutting off its light as it grows denser and eventually opens hundreds of tiny white flowers in mid-summer. In the fall come the fruit, pink to scarlet and just like those of the bittersweet vine, which has the same climbing habit. Both are tree-huggers - not the loving kind, but deadly assassins.

I'm wondering if I will eventually have to choose between the mulberry and the fortune-vine. It would be impossible to choose, because both are dear and deserving. Right now they seem like the best of friends. They complement each other well, the stodgy old mulberry - a pure old geezer of a tree, with sticky, shedding flowers and never once a berry - and the lanky, youthful winter creeper - adorning the mulberry's trunk like a wreath of holly while the tree sleeps draped with snow. They remind me of gunslingers in an old Western, riding together as simpatico compadres, but destined down the line for that inevitable showdown. ++

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