University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article


ALTERNATIVES TO THE BURNING BUSH
 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
 
Burning bush is an invasive plant you should not put in landscapes, and for which there are many good alternatives.  This is a common ornamental plant whose seeds are spread by birds and wildlife to natural areas where they invade, crowding out native plants.  There are several alternative plants you can use instead of burning bush, or to replace it.

Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is an attractive shrub, often overused in landscapes, noted and named for its brilliant red foliage in the fall.  It is deciduous, as are its alternatives, that is they lose their leaves in winter.  It is easily sheared into hedges, or seen planted in masses.  Left unpruned, it can reach 10 to 14 feet high and wide. 

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is a good native alternative to the burning bush, not quite as tall but also with red fall color on several selections.  Its many burgundy, young twiggy stems give it winter interest too. This plant of course has edible berries for people and wildlife.  Even though it is self-pollinating, you may get more fruit from using at least two selections.  It can tolerate occasionally wet soils.

There are many cultivars (cultivated variety) available of the highbush blueberry, varying some in hardiness and fall leaf color.  Several common ones such as ‘Spartan’ (less hardy) and ‘Bluejay’ have orange or yellow-orange fall color.  ‘Patriot’ is a hardy, lower selection from the University of Maine with orange-red fall color.  Good choices for red fall color are the hardy ‘Friendship’, getting only 2 to 3 feet high and wide; ‘Tophat’, getting only 1 to 2 feet high and 2 to 3 feet wide (hardy to USDA zone 5); and the hardy ‘Toro’ (USDA zone 4), getting 4 to 6 feet high and wide.
 
Fothergilla has species that can be used both for foundation plantings (F.gardenii) and for naturalistic settings (F. major), reaching 3 to 4 feet high, or 6 to 10 feet high, respectively.  Their habit is dense and rounded.  Both have fall leaves mixed in colors of red, yellow, and orange for an attractive effect.  The lightly fragrant flowers (like honey) in spring are shaped like bottlebrushes.  Fothergilla is hardy in the warmer parts of the north (USDA zones 5 and warmer).  When looking for these shrubs, consider the lower cultivar ‘Appalachia’, or the taller ‘Mount Airy’.  Both tend to “sucker”, or send up shoots on the sides.
           
Redvein Enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus) has good red fall color on plants that can get 6 to 12 feet high, and a bit less wide, giving it an upright appearance.  The yellowish-pink, hanging bell-shaped flowers have red veins, and are attractive in spring.  The bright red young stems during the summer usually persist through the winter, giving it year-round appeal.  Enkianthus is hardy in the warmer parts of the north (USDA zones 5 and warmer).  It combines well with rhododendrons which like similar conditions.  Another feature is that this shrub is somewhat deer resistant.
           
Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is a slow grower, eventually reaching 6 to 10 feet high, and half that wide.  This native plant has an open and upright habit in landscapes, but with suckers will form a broad mound.  Perennials and ornamental grasses in front will help hide the bare lower trunks.  Once established, this plant will tolerate drought.

The species of red chokeberry has red to reddish purple leaves in fall, but the cultivar ‘Brilliantissima’ has scarlet fall color.  Clusters of white flowers in spring produce red fruit in the fall.   This plant will tolerate occasionally wet soils, and is hardy in most of the north (USDA zone 4 and warmer).  A couple choice and related cultivars to consider are the lower ‘Autumn Magic’ with black fruit, and ‘Viking’ with purple fruits high in vitamins.

Another alternative to the burning bush sometimes recommended is the American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum, often seen as  V. trilobum). This native species, and its more brightly fall colored cultivars such as ‘Alfredo’ and ‘Redwing’ can be used where the viburnum leaf beetle isn’t a problem.  Once established, this shrub tolerates drought.

Our native winterberry (Ilex verticillata) provides brilliant red fall color from its berries on female plants.    There is a difference in fruit color retention among cultivars.  Best in trials at the University of Vermont were ‘Jolly Red’, ‘Maryland Beauty’, ‘Winter Red’, and the hybrid ‘Sparkleberry’.  Keep in mind if planting these that you’ll need a male plant or two for pollination.  The species of winterberry is often seen in natural areas in wet soils, although this plant tolerates dry soils as well, only grows less quickly there.
 
All these plants perform best in full sun to part shade, and moist but well-drained soils unless noted.  Enkianthus and fothergilla also prefer acidic soils (lower pH of 5.5-6.5), with highbush blueberry preferring quite acid soils (pH 4.0 to 5.0).  They are carefree, and low maintenance alternatives to the burning bush, providing similar fall color and often many additional benefits and attractions.

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