Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 15, 2008

Words Worthy of a Wahoo

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:10 pm

 In my rather shallow box of witticisms, I have one filed away for use in any situation involving a Hackberry Tree or a Burning Bush. These two plants have ridges on their branches or trunks which offer a distinctive species identifying mark.  The ridges are made up of thin layers of corky material that stand out from the smooth bark.  In the textbooks these features are logically called “corky ridges.”  I’ll occasionally point out this official designation on a public nature walk and follow it up with a pseudo reflective comment like: “Corky Ridges? I think he was a couple of years behind me in high school. Red-haired kid if I recall.”

  The usual return reaction is similar to the one you are probably expressing at this moment. I’ll admit, it’s not that funny but it gives me deep personal satisfaction.  I actually knew someone named Corky once, but he was much older than me and not a member of the Ridges family.

  I wouldn’t have brought this up unless there was a good reason for doing so.  I recently came across a Burning Bush – one of those corky ridge plants – and would like to introduce it to you.  When Moses came upon one of these many years ago, he noted that the shrub was not consumed by the flames that engulfed it. His plant was fully leaved at the time, but mine was bereft of foliage due to the season and therefore not on fire. In the leafless state the characteristic ridges show up plainly (see here).

  The common name, as you might have figured out, stems from that biblical incident. When the autumn leaves of this shrub are ablaze in vibrant crimson, the plant indeed looks to be on fire – a cool fire at that.  As is usually the case, there are several names for this common Northeastern plant. Wahoo is another commonly used name as is the scientific appellation of Euonymus (which means “good name” in Greek).

  Even though I found this particular bush in the “wild,” it is a plant you can easily see in your neighborhood because they are frequently used for landscape plantings. But, there is a problem.  The plant I found wasn’t a native Wahoo, it was a Winged Wahoo.  This is why the thing looked so corky. The winged version hails from N.E. Asia and has four twig ridges that radiate out nearly ¼ inch from the green stems.  The native plant is much more conservative in its ridgiosity. 

  I did get a chuckle from a quote originating from a Nature Conservancy web site which was headed “Weed Alert.”  In reference to the alien Winged Wahoo, it said that “it had been observed escaping from cultivation in the northeast and Midwest.”  I wonder if any videos were made to record this behavior.  Perhaps there is a You Tube short that shows a Wahoo jumping a nursery fence and fleeing across an open field.  The one I cornered was obviously passing itself off as a local, so this is apparently how they survive while on the lamb.   Both members of the good fella clan are widely planted, however, so you are apt to come across either one in either place.  Both are called Burning Bush and both are called Wahoos, so we’ll leave that discussion point alone.

  If this piece were strictly on Wahoos, I would quickly run out of things to say about now.  They are low growing (15-20 ft. high), multi-stemmed shrubs with opposite branching. They bear dangling red fruit that looks like a little heart popping out of a bag and that’s about it. Sure there are some medicinal uses, but I found that a brief exploration of the name to be therapeutic in its own right.

  The original name of Wahoo is supposed to stem (pun intended) from a Dakota Indian name for the plant.  In their tongue this meant “Arrow wood” and is an indication that the straight branches were used for that purpose. The fact that there is another unrelated local plant commonly called the Arrow Wood only slightly confuses the matter.  The Wahoo name has planted itself deep in human culture (yes, that was another pun).  There is an oceanic fish that goes by the same name, as well as a board game, the Cleveland Indians mascot chief, and the name of a World War II submarine captained by “Mush” Morton.

  Wahoo is the unofficial nickname applied to the athletes of the University of West Virginia, although I’m not sure which side employs it during games.  In 1895, the team rallying call of the Ohio State Football Team was “Wahoo, Wahoo. I yell for OSU.”  Now if that isn’t an obscure fact, nothing is.  It would be fitting to end this thing with one more Wahoo word. The dictionary defines it as a “meaningless yell” – perhaps an apt description of this entire essay.

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