Euonymus as a standard

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I never appreciate my euonymus standards more than in the Winter, when their evergreen growth and rounded shape are in stark reveal amid the season's prevailing bare twigs.  'Sarcoxie' has leaves that are solid green, and so its appeal must rely all the more on density of growth and the overall shape of the standard.  The standard in these pictures is still young, and so I haven't yet been able to shape the head to the symmetry and size it will have at maturity.

 

But pruning along the way is how to help the standard look sharper even in its gawky youth.  Here's the same plant just before pruning. 

 

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A snip here, another snip there, and the bush was transformed into the stylish—well, stylish enough—element of the garden all Winter long.

 

 

Here's how to grow this unusual evergreen standard:


Latin Name

Euonymus fortunei 'Sarcoxie' as a standard

Common Name

Standard of 'Sarcoxie' euonymus

Family

Celastraceae, the Bittersweet family.

What kind of plant is it?

Broadleaved evergreen vining shrub that has been grafted as as standard.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 9.

Habit

Bushy and, unless pruned, somewhat lax.

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

A happy 'Sarcoxie' standard grows steadily.  The evergreen head of growth would normally receive some pruning to keep it rounded, but I have seen thriving euonymus standards with heads five feet across and more.  The height of the standard's trunk doesn't change, it does thicken impressively.  The head can be pruned to encourage a more spherical shape, and that's how the standard's overall height can also be adjusted.  Assuming that the 'Sarcoxie' bush is grafted atop a four-foot trunk, the overall height of an old standard pruned for maximum "head size" could be eight feet or even a bit taller.  I've also seen euonymus standards formed from trunks that were only two feet tall. 

Texture

A full head atop a comparatively slender trunk.

Grown for

its foliage: Euonymus fortunei is often thought—and rightfully so—as being in the second-tier of  broadleaf evergreens.  But even in Zone 6, and definitely in Zone 5, there will never be a surfeit of broadleaves. 

 

its fruit: The small white flowers mature to clusters of bright orange berries, which are displayed handsomely against the foliage.  They're even more prominent because the bush has been grafted atop the standard's trunk, so they're right at eye level.

 

its form: Grafting Euonymus fortunei to form a standard elevates this broadleaf, literally as well as aesthetically, into the first tier of desirable evergreens, especially in Zones 5 and 6.

 

its toughness: Euonymus standards are soundly hardy in Zone 5; I see them often in Ontario, Canada, where the "warmest" climate is only Zone 6.

Flowering season

Spring.  The flowers aren't showy, but the berries they mature to are.

Color combinations

'Sarcoxie' goes with everything; the orange berries are showiest in Fall and early Winter when, to my eye at least, any and all colors, in (just about) any combination, are welcome.  

Partner plants

'Sarcoxie' standards are truly cosmopolitan in their ability to partner.  I've underplanted some of mine with yews, which I clip into plinths as high as the standard's trunk.  Japanese holly would be good as well, because its foliage is also noticeably darker than that of 'Sarcoxie'.  Box would be less effective, because its foliage is about the same color. 

 

Another option would be to underplant with deciduous or even herbaceous plants, so that the form and evergreenity of the Euonymus is all the more emphasized in Winter.  Hostas thrive in part shade and with good drainage.  Or what about shrubs with colorful Winter bark?  Cornus alba 'Aurea' or Cornus sericea 'Elegantissima,' say.  They would be cut down to only inches each Spring, so the trunk of the 'Sarcoxie' standard would be held just high enough to look like a big green beach ball atop the colorful twigs.  

 

The simplest and most restrained tactic would be to underplant with a low groundcover, to give the 'Sarcoxie' standard the full stage for its exciting shape and welcome evergreen presence.

Where to use it in your garden

'Sarcoxie' standards have many uses.  The simplest is to use them first as an instantly-elevated shrub, and only secondarily as a shrub that might be shaped into a specific shape by pruning.  Having 'Sarcoxie' at a higher altitude—four to eight feet—is exciting in itself, regardless of the bush's specific shape.  I myself have a standard of one of the variegated sports of E. fortunei well back in a large mixed border, where it would have been completely hidden if planted as an ungrafted shrub.  As a standard, the bush's naturally rounded shape seems to be surfing amid and even atop the surrounding high growth of Summer perennials and warm-weather-blooming shrubs.

 

'Sarcoxie' standards can also be used to highlight their geometry: the rounded head of foliage atop a straight and narrow trunk.  A quartet marking the corners of a small terrace, say?  Or a line of them at attention along a walkway, or down the spine of a border?  If you're gardening in Zone 7 or warmer, you can grow 'Sarcoxie' standards in large tubs year-round, for yet another level (literally) of detail as well as overall geometry.    

Culture

Any decent soil, full sun, and good Winter drainage.  I've learned the hard way about the latter.  Euonymus fortunei itself is more tolerant of less than ideal circumstances, although it still isn't a broadleaf shrub for ground that's truly wet.  But standards of Euonymus fortunei demand decent drainage.

How to handle it: The Basics

Euonymus fortunei plants (and transplants) easily; as long as the bush enjoys a bed with good drainage, establishment should be routine.  Euonymus standards need a solid stake for the life of the plant; wood stakes will inevitably rot after a couple of years, so it's best to use a stake that's metal.  I use rebar, which is strong, cheap, long-lasting, and easy to cut.  Tie the standard to the stake at the top of the trunk, just below where the 'Sarcoxie' is grafted.  Tie in a loose figure-eight, so that the tie (I use fabric-covered clothesline) intervenes between the trunk and the rebar, to keep it from rubbing against the trunk.  The trunk will increase in girth, so retie every year, or at least every other year.

 

Euonymus are tolerant when it comes to pruning.  I tend to prune whenever I get the yen for it, be it Spring, Summer, or Fall.  The goal of pruning is to maintain dense growth and to keep the bush from growing too tall or too wide.  I've never had a Euonymus standard suffer from snow damage, and I have some with heads five feet across.   

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

None.

Quirks or special cases

"Vining shrub?"  Euonymus fortunei has a sense of touch.  When stems of the bush come into contact with something solid and stable—be it another bush or tree, carpentry, natural stone or masonry, or even glass—they can switch from producing self-supporting growth to producing flexible growth that adheres by way of stem-roots, just like ivy.  The growth changes from being shrubby to vining, in other words.  Euonymus sarcoxie can do this only because it has, in its own way, a sense of touch that allows it to detect that, aha, something to climb upon is now at hand. 

 

This sensitive and quickly-responding sense of touch is one of the hallmarks of vines.  If the tip of a branch of an oak tree comes into contact with a building, that branch doesn't respond differently; it keeps growing (or tries to) as a branch.  No matter how old the apple tree that's espaliered against a wall, its branches never start growing roots to hold themselves to their support.  But a morning glory stem that comes into contact with a guidewire in the morning will have detected that guidewire and changed its growth so that it twines around it by lunch.  By dinner, it might have grown two or three times around the wire, staying in touch every millimeter of the way. 

 

Only vines respond quickly to contact with solid material by growing so as to adhere to it.  And some shrubs, Euonymus sarcoxie among them, have the same talent.

 

Free from the burden of having to produce growth sturdy enough to be self-supporting, those vining stems put all of their energy into the climb.  They make quick upward progress.  I'm hard put to think of a situation in which it would be attractive to allow the euonymus of a grafted standard to switch to vining growth and adhere to a nearby support; at the very least, that growth would destroy the integrity of the standard's rounded head.  Standards can look even more exciting when backed by architecture, but you'll need Euonymus standards pruned so they don't start to grow on the architecture.

Downsides

Euonymus fortunei is susceptible to both scale and mildew, but responds well to treatment.  Both are more of a problem in gardens that are separated from the wider world, as in the center of a block in a big city, where there might not be beneficial insects to control the scale, and where the air can be still and steamy in Summer, which encourages the mildew.  Here in the country in Rhode Island, my 'Sarcoxie' standards aren't troubled by either scale or mildew.

Variants

Other E. fortunei cultivars that are routinely grafted into standards include 'Emerald Gaiety', whose leaves are variegated with white, and 'Emerald 'n Gold', whose leaves are variegated with yellow.  Both produce the showy orange berries.

Availability

On-line and, rarely, at retailers.

Propagation

Euonymus standards are formed by grafting E. fortunei atop a trunk of one of the tree-form Euonymus species, such as E. europaeus.

Native habitat

Euonymus fortunei is native to East Asia.  In North America, 'Sarcoxie' is most often grafted as a standard in Canada, from where I imported mine.  For a source in the United States, you might inquire to Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut.

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