Wahoo Tree

Euonymus atropurpureus

Herbs gallery - Wahoo Tree

Common names

  • American Wahoo
  • Burningbush
  • Wahoo Tree

The wahoo tree (botanical name Euonymus atropurpureus) is a large shrub native to the Eastern half of the North American continent. It is part of the bittersweet family and its size is influenced by climate, it can be an oversized shrub in the plains but becomes a small tree in the south. It is a spectacular sight during the fall because of the very bright red color of its leaves. The fruits are also a very vivid scarlet color and stay on the tree even after all of the leaves are gone, their large groups give an interesting color even during the winter. It is a popular garden plant and can provide a nice chromatic boost.

In warmer climates, the size of the wahoo tree increases and it can become a small tree with a maximum height of about 25 feet. It can sometimes split into several main branches but it's not very common. The main branches and the trunk have a rougher grey bark but the smaller ones are usually green, with only small grey stripes. The fresh shoots are completely green and their section can be either circular or resembling a square. Leaves grow in opposite pairs, they can be as long as 4½ inch with a width of 2 inches. They are usually ovate in shape, with slightly serrated edges, and only grow on the fresh shoots or the minor branches. The top of the leaves is a dark nuance of green, while the bottom is paler and covered with small hair. Petioles with a length of about ½ inch are located at the base of leaves. The color of the leaves during the autumn is the most striking aspect of the tree.

Flowers develop from the axils of leaves, even in locations where these have fallen off. They grow in clusters of 7 to 20 and are no bigger than 1/3 inch with a symmetrical layout: every flower has four petals, sepals and stamens, with a single short pistil. Both the petals and the sepals have various shades of purple, with ovoid shapes. The wahoo tree blooms in late spring or the start of summer and the flowers stay on the tree for about one month. The fruits have the shape of a capsule with 4 lobes containing seeds and mature in the autumn. When fully ripe, each capsule opens to reveal 4 very small fruits, each one with 2 seeds inside. These can be pink or purple but the color becomes more intense in time, contributing to the colored nature of the tree. The seeds themselves are brown and un-remarkable. The wahoo tree has a taproot and usually propagates by reseeding.

Parts used

Bark, fruit.


The Native American Indians were aware of the medical properties of the wahoo tree and used it to treat several diseases. They employed it mostly as an external agent, applied on the face like a cataplasm to relieve sores, as an eye unguent or in the treatment of gynecological problems.

Modern herbalists have found other uses for this herb. Its diuretic and laxative effects make it a good remedy for gallbladder issues. The bark is the most potent part of the plant but be aware that only the one on the roots or stems should be used. The bark on the trunk and main braches is toxic and should only be handled with caution, while women who are pregnant or nursing must avoid it completely.

The root bark is the best for medical purposes but the one on the stems is also good enough and can be considered an alternative. The bark has a wide range of properties, it regulates the activity of the heart and acts as a diuretic, laxative, stimulant, tonic, cholagogue, expectorant, hepatic, alterative and cathartic. Small doses of bark increase the appetite but it must be ingested with caution since larger amounts are bad for the intestines. Like the Native Americans already knew, the plant is effective when applied on the skin to treat problems like eczema. The bark cures bile and liver problems, especially those caused by fever, and eliminates other nasty effects associated with these conditions, like skin irritation. Wahoo bark tea can prevent malaria, constipation and other diseases.

Wahoo tree also has some cosmetic uses and was thought to clear dandruff, by applying a powder made from the bark directly on the hair. Both the bark and the roots have been considered effective against heart diseases, probably because of the digitoxin contained by them. The bark is best harvested in the fall and can be used for a long time, after it dries completely. Seeds are powerful laxatives, while root tea can heal internal issues such as bleeding, blood vomiting, stomach pain or painful urination.

The bark of wahoo was also used as a laxative by Native Americans and it was actually the most important cure against constipation in their traditional medicine. Besides its strong laxative effect, the plant is very good in cases of indigestion as well. Since the bark also fights various problems of the bladder and liver, it is a recommended counter for constipation caused by such issues. Wahoo bark extracts can greatly increase the production of bile and are a good remedy for jaundice. The bark is actually useful against any type of gallbladder or liver-related disease. Since it can restore the normal function of the liver, it also heals skin conditions that are actually caused by a malfunctioning liver.

The wahoo's properties resemble the ones of digitalis, for this reason it was knows as a cure for heart conditions for a long time. This is actually probably the oldest attested medicinal use of the plant. Some scientists think this is due to the content of digitoxin, while others consider the cardenolide glycosides as the most likely active compounds.

The use of wahoo bark as a minor diuretic is also very old and used to be widespread in the 19th century. It was especially employed against any disease that causes fever, such as malaria or dropsy. In the past century it was also popular against uterine leaks, venereal diseases and hair dandruff.

Wahoo bark can stimulate the human appetite but the dosage must be precise, since large quantities are cathartic and cause intestinal problems. In small doses, it increases the production of gastric juice. A very effective use of wahoo tree is in constipation caused by liver damage, when it can be an ideal purgative, expectorant and diuretic.

It is a very good cure for cases when high fever leads to a malfunctioning liver. It can boost liver activity and increase the flow of bile, without causing any kind of nausea like other similar cures.

The plant is very popular in today's homeopathy and has found numerous uses. It is prescribed by herbalists in the treatment of dyspepsia and also as a tonic, laxative, diuretic and cholagogue. Since it is a bitter tonic, it works very well when combined with similar plants like goldenseal or gentian in order to regulate digestion. It can be very effective against malaria due to its anti-periodic effect and it is even considered an alternative for quinine and can replace it without any problem in many cases. The tincture is prepared in the same way as any bark-made one and the dosage is a spoon two hours before any chill.

Side effects and cautions

All parts of the wahoo tree except the bark are toxic and should never be consumed. Both the bark and its extract have to be dosed carefully, since high quantities lead to intestinal trouble and a strong purgative effect. The bark can also cause cold sweat or nausea in some people.


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