Plant This Not That: Replacing Burning Bush

Burning bush is still widely available for sale in nurseries

By Alyssa Ford Morel, Extension Master Gardener
Photos by Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener

The more I learn about our environment, the more I see that invasive plants are a big problem. We’re not talking about pesky plants that spread in the garden. Invasives have a strict definition laid out in Executive Order 13112, signed by President Bill Clinton, which says that an invasive must be non-native where it occurs and be capable of escaping cultivation into wild spaces and out-competing natives, causing harm to the economy, human health, or the environment. So, invasiveness isn’t about how aggressive a plant is in our gardens. It’s about how it behaves in the wild.

Almost all invasives have appealing qualities. More than 80 percent of the invasive woody plants in America were introduced in the nursery trade. After decades of use, we often know and like them better than native plants. Problematic behavior can be hard to see.

For years I thought Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) wasn’t a big problem, at least not around Northern Virginia. I wasn’t spotting it in wild areas like I was seeing other plants on Arlington’s invasive list. Then I learned.

I was asked to help lead a class on invasives at Potomac Overlook. The other leaders and I met for a reconnaissance walk before the class. Burning Bush was pointed out. But it didn’t look like the Burning Bush I knew! Instead of the large, dense, deep green (or red in fall) shrub found in private yards, it was more airy and lighter colored. But when we looked closely at the branches, there were the tell-tale corky “wings” that give it the alternative name “Winged Euonymus.” In the wild, with more shade and less pruning, the shrub looks significantly different, and I moved it up my mental ranking to “real problem.”

Fortunately, there are many great native substitutes that support wildlife and still have beautiful autumn color. One possibility is Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa). It grows 4- to 6-feet tall, has white flowers in mid-spring followed by bird-friendly black fruit in mid-summer, and turns crimson in fall.

Another choice is Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), whose fruit is a human “superfood.” This species likes acid soil and sets the best berries with two varieties to cross-pollinate. It grows 4- to 10-feet tall and has white spring flowers and a fiery red fall show.

If you’d like bright golden fall color, consider Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), which has lacy yellow spring flowers and red berries in late summer that are especially nutritious for birds. Deer don’t like Spicebush, so it’s a great choice if you have deer issues. Spicebush grows from 6- to 15-feet tall and is good in shade. It is dioecious, meaning plants are either male or female, so you’ll want a group for good pollination, or convince your neighbors to plant Spicebush, too.

Whether you choose one of these shrubs or another native to replace Burning Bush, you will feel good for having turned an environmental problem into an environmental plus.

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