By Emily DeBolt, CNLP
A quick Google of "burning bush, invasive" will quickly pull up a long list of websites with info about how invasive burning bush, Euonymus alatus, is. However, a quick drive down the road will also just as easily show you how popular it still is in both the home and commercial landscape. And a quick visit to a local garden center and nursery will show you how readily available it still is. Prized for its hardiness and red fall foliage, burning bush is still a very popular shrub for landscaping despite being a "regulated" species in New York as of 2015 (meaning it can still be sold but has to be labeled as invasive). Click here for the New York State Prohibited and Regulated Invasive Plants List.
However, as more and more native shrubs are becoming available in in mainstream horticulture, there are a number of great options to consider instead of burning bush. In fact, when I explain that it is invasive to most customers, they are usually very receptive to the idea of planting something else instead. Education is key.
As much as native plants are my passion, the same isn’t true for everyone else. I get that. They see burning bush growing at their neighbor’s house, or the shopping center parking lot -- and it doesn’t look invasive at all. And that right there seems to be the problem. When people have oriental bittersweet smothering their trees and fence in their backyard, they can literally see the invasion. Fields of purple loosestrife in August. Got it. Easy to see. Huge stands of Japanese knotweed or phragmites covering vast areas along the side of the road. Who could miss that? But a few good-looking, often well-pruned, burning bush shrubs in a front yard? Where’s the invasion? What’s all the fuss about?
So the problem with burning bush seems to be that people just aren’t seeing the invasion yet. But as we have learned from invasion ecology time and time again, once we can all see it, it is way too late.
Most of the photos you can find online of burning bush invasions are from Connecticut or other areas south of us. So I hear people say, "Well, that is down there. It isn’t spreading like that up here." Yes, it is. The photo at right shows burning bush spreading through the woods off Bay Road near Lake George, NY. Its color is more muted in the woods -- but pretty much everything that looks shrubby in this photo is burning bush.
Burning bush looks well-behaved in a manicured landscape setting. Seedlings that do start to grow are just mowed down and never noticed. However, birds and other wildlife eat the berries and carry the seed out beyond landscaped areas into natural ones, and that is where the invasion is happening -- out of sight for the most part. Burning bush can fill in the forest understory, crowding out tree saplings vital for forest regeneration and smothering other native vegetation, reducing diversity and the forest’s function and resiliency.
I have given public talks for garden clubs and other groups frequently over the years, and after I explain this part of how burning bush spreads, and show photos of what it looks like in natural areas it has invaded, I see lots of little light bulbs going off all around the room. That’s great news. Oftentimes someone in the audience says that they wish someone had just explained this to them sooner -- because had they known, they would have not planted burning bush. Then they inevitably ask me, if burning bush is so invasive why it is still being sold?
That is not a short answer. Suffice it to say that when experts ranked the invasiveness of plants in New York for the recent legislation, burning bush came out as one of the worst actors -- with a "very high" invasiveness ranking. So there is no question as to the potential it has to invade and cause harm to our natural areas. But we all know nothing is black or white, and that legislation and regulations are always a compromise.
So even though burning bush has been banned from sale in nearby states including Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, for now it is still for sale in New York. I’ll leave it at that for now. If landscapers and nurseries started to carry or offer more native alternatives and educate their customers, I think they would be pleasantly surprised at how we could get away from burning bush being used so frequently -- prohibited or not.
As with any native alternative, it is always important to think about what characteristic you are trying to match. With burning bush I think it is pretty obvious. Its flowers and berries are pretty inconspicuous. It’s winged bark is interesting, and the reason for its other lesser-heard common name, winged euonymus (probably because no one wants to spell euonymus!) -- but I doubt most homeowners have even noticed that. It’s the bright red color in the fall that customers want, and its hardiness that landscapers and nurseries appreciate.
No one wants a customer calling up about a dead shrub. We can all agree about that. People want plants that are tough and adaptable and can survive with little care. And while I have seen my fair share of dead and dying burning bushes in parking lot medians, in general it is proven to be one tough shrub. But it also only really provides one season of interest and is pretty boring the rest of the year. And even with some dwarf selections available, it is still quite large and without regular pruning overruns many of the places it is planted. So there are areas we can improve upon, too.
Challenge accepted! There are a number of native alternatives for shrubs with bright red fall foliage that are worth considering. Some of them are hardier and tougher than others. Some are a little more specific about their site conditions. I’m not going to pretend that they are all just the same as burning bush. They aren’t. They are even better.
Chokeberry – Aronia
Chokeberry is perhaps my favorite alternative to burning bush and, in fact, one of my favorite all-around shrubs. Chokeberry has three seasons of interest with white flowers in the spring, berries in late summer that persist into winter, and beautiful foliage color in the fall. It is hardy and adaptable to many conditions, comes in a variety of heights, and also provides for pollinators and the birds. They are also deer resistant and drought and salt tolerant. Need I say more?
The two main options are red chokeberry, A. arbutifolia, and black chokeberry, A. melanocarpa. (Interesting side note: Black chokeberry seems to also be becoming a new superfood like goji berries due to its high antioxidant content. For marketing purposes, it is mainly being called Aronia rather than Chokeberry. Might make sense for marketing it for landscaping, too). Both species have attractive leaves and pretty white flowers in spring. But you guessed it, red chokeberry has red berries and black has a dark purple/blackish berry.
"Brilliantissima" is a popular cultivar of red chokeberry that grows to 6-8 feet and was named for its brilliant red berries and fall color. "Viking" (pictured) is a popular black chokeberry cultivar that stays 3 to 5 feet. Some of the newest Aronias available are the Lowscape series. These black chokeberry hybrids were developed by Dr. Mark Brand of the University of Connecticut. "Lowscape Mound" is only 1-2 feet tall, and ‘Lowscape Hedger’ grows to 3-5 feet but is more columnar than "Viking."
Highbush Blueberry -- Vaccinium
Highbush blueberries, Vaccinium corymbosum, also have gorgeous red fall color and are available in a variety of heights, making them a good alternative to burning bush as well. Since they are a bit more particular about their site requirements, they might not work as an alternative in every situation, but they are still worth adding to the list. As home gardening and the local food movement grow, more and more customers are looking to incorporate edibles into their landscapes.
There is a wide variety of selections available, including some hybrid half-highs that are a cross of highbush and lowbush blueberries, giving customers the berry production of highbush with less height. "Blue Crop" and "Blue Ray" are two nice midsized selections at 4-6 feet and hardy to zone 3 with great red fall color.
Hardiness, leaf color and bloom time vary by selection. It is generally best to plant at least two selections of similar bloom time if possible to increase berry production if production is of interest in addition to fall color.
Popular selections including "Duke," "Bluejay," "Jersey" and "Patriot" can have more orange than red leaves. Stick with "Liberty," "Legacy," "Earliblue," "Elliott," "Chandler," "Aurora," "Bluecrop" or "blueray" if you are going for red color.
Viburnum is a very popular shrub with a number of different native and non-native species available these days. They come in a variety of heights and have pretty spring blooms and berries in the summer. Fall color varies.
One particular noteworthy newer native viburnum selection is V. nudum "Brandywine." Hardy to zone 5, this cultivar has a nice height of 5-6 feet; produces gorgeous white flowers in the spring followed by an awesome display of multicolored pink and blue berries; doesn’t need a pollinator for fruit set, which is nice; has gorgeous fall color; and is deer resistant. It is described as maroon-red, which is definitely a bit darker than burning bush, but the glossy leaves are so beautiful and vibrant that I think this selection is a very viable option.
Now unfortunately, there is a little thing called the Viburnum Leaf Beetle out there. Many areas have it. Some are lucky and don’t seem to. "Brandywine" is highly susceptible to this pest, along with Arrowwood and American Cranberry Viburnum. So if VLB is a potential issue in your area, you may want to pass on viburnums. If you do chance it, make sure to ask the nursery what its stock source is and if it is clean. Click here to learn more about VLB including which viburnum species are more susceptible.
Dogwood - Cornus
Just like the viburnums, there are a number of different dogwood species available as well. They all have beautiful spring flowers, summer berries and fall color. Some, such as red twig dogwood, C. sericea, also have winter interest with colored stems. Heights and fall color vary depending on species and selection. Silky, C. amomum, and gray, C. racemosa are usually found as just straight species, but Lake County Nursery in Ohio recently released a series of selections of gray dogwood that look very interesting. C. sericea is popular and provides selections in all heights -- from Kelseyi at 2-3 feet, Arctic Fire at 3-4 feet, and Baileyi at 6-8 feet -- and has nice fall color, albeit typically a bit more maroon-red then red-red.
Sweetspire – Itea
With fragrant white flowers and beautiful fall foliage, sweetspire is a great landscape shrub. Popular selections include "Henry’s Garnet" at 4-6 feet and "Little Henry" at 2-3 feet (although there is some question as to just how dwarf Little Henry will stay). Hardy to zone 5, sweetspire attracts butterflies when it is covered with white blooms in early summer, and is deer resistant and drought tolerant once established. Oh, and it can be grown in sun or shade -- although if you are looking for the really vibrant red color, be sure to give it enough sun to really shine. The fall color on this shrub is really a knockout. You won’t be disappointed.
Fragrant Sumac - Rhus
Don’t let the word sumac scare you away. Quickly gaining in popularity for low-maintenance mass plantings, fragrant sumac, Rhus aromatica, is a tough shrub with gorgeous fall color that makes an impact. The selection "Gro-Low" (pictured) is widely available. Hardy to zone 2 and reaching a height of 2-3 feet, this shrub is a great choice for mass plantings or other more natural settings. The straight species, growing 4-6 feet tall, might be a better match as a burning bush alternative since it gets a bit taller -- but it is grown more in the "conservation" industry still and isn’t readily available at this point. The form of "Gro-Low" might not be as good of a match, but the function sure is. It is tough and hardy and gorgeous in the fall. Enough said.
I’m sure there are other possible alternatives out there as well. This is just a list to help get you started if you are interested in trying out some new shrubs in place of burning bush this upcoming year. Happy planting!
Emily DeBolt, CNLP is the owner of Fiddlehead Creek Native Plant Nursery in Hartford, N.Y.
Above: fall color on a variety of native shrubs as compared to Euonymus alatus. Top row, from left: Aronia arbutifolia "Brilliantissima," Fothergilla x "Mt. Airy," Aronia melanocarpa "Viking," Aronia X "Lowscape Mound," Viburnum nudum "Brandywine," Cornus amomom. Bottom row, from left: Euonymus alatus, Hydrangea quercifolia "Gatsby Pink," Itea virginica "Little Henry," Rhus aromatica, Vaccinium corymbosum "Bluecrop."
All photos by Emily DeBolt, CNLP.