Alternatives to Burning Bush
Question: The burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is a bush of choice in many neighborhoods. I’ve heard that I shouldn’t plant it because it’s invasive. Why and what are some alternatives?
With its striking bright red or purplish fall foliage, red berries and orange seeds, burning bush or winged euonymus is widely available for purchase and often used in both commercial and residential landscapes. A deciduous shrub, it grows up to 20 feet tall and up to 12 feet wide. Small yellow green flowers bloom in May to early June in Virginia and its green to brown stems have two to four corky ridges. Introduced from Asia in the 1860s, it grows easily in a variety of soils in shade or sun in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 to 8.
What Are Invasive Plants?
Invasive plants are defined as species that are introduced by humans to a region where they did not evolve, have the ability to displace native plants and can cause environmental and economic damage to ecosystems, commercial agriculture and home landscapes. They not only spread to neighboring yards but to natural areas where they crowd out native plants that provide food, shelter and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. They alter ecosystems and disrupt the biodiversity crucial to the survival of insect and bird populations and the entire food web. Some bees and butterflies will only lay eggs on, feed on and pollinate specific native plants. When invasive plants endanger these native plants, insects, birds and other pollinators and wildlife are also threatened.
Burning bush is designated as an invasive plant species in Virginia and many other regions of the U.S. Some states, including Delaware, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, have even taken the more drastic step of banning the sale of burning bush.
What Makes Burning Bush Invasive?
Burning bush has escaped plantings in home landscapes and moved into forests and coastal areas in at least 21 eastern and mid-western states. Its invasive nature comes from its adaptability to a variety of growing conditions and its ability to spread easily and form dense thickets or hedges that crowd out large areas of native vegetation. Factors contributing to its rapid spread include:
- Seed production and dispersal. Each burning bush is estimated to produce over 1,200 seeds per year and those seeds have a high germination rate. Birds and small mammals eat the berries and the seeds are dispersed to new locations producing high numbers of new seedlings.
- Self-fertilization. Since each plant produces both male and female flowers, it is easily fertilized by pollinators. Hundreds of seeds then germinate around the mother plant, forming dense growth in the “seed shadow” that smothers other plants.
- Plant size. Since the plants can grow up to 20 feet tall, they can dominate the understory by shading and outcompeting nearby smaller native plants for light, water and soil nutrients.
- Vegetative Reproduction. When a burning bush stem is cut, broken or falls to the ground, the plant grows new stems and root suckers to replace the broken ones, increasing the spread of the plant.
- Lack of Predators and Disease. Burning bush can grow, reproduce and spread faster than plants that are susceptible to predators and disease.
Control of Burning Bush
When already established in a yard, individual burning bush plants can be controlled through foliar herbicide treatments during the growing season and basal bark and stump herbicide treatments applied any time of year. However, control in woodland areas, where birds can roost and spread the seed profusely, is more difficult. Be sure to consult Virginia Cooperative Extension’s integrated pest management guide for instructions on any control treatments.
And, given its invasive nature, why not choose an alternative to burning bush that provides similar showy ornamental value without being detrimental to the surrounding landscape?
Alternatives to Burning Bush
Fortunately, there are many beautiful native Virginia shrubs, that are excellent alternatives. In addition to attracting pollinators, they are often host plants that provide a critical food source for the caterpillar or larvae of these pollinators.
Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) – host plant for several species of moths and hairstreak butterflies. The chokeberry fruits remain on the shrub through winter, feeding a wide variety of over-wintering songbirds. Thirty species of pollinators are attracted to the red chokeberry.
Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) – a host plant for the coral hairstreak butterflies and the large lace-border moth. Native bees feed on its nectar and pollen and some songbirds and small mammals eat its berries.
Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) – nesting and shelter for some wildlife, as well as nectar for bees, butterflies and moths.
Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) – host plant to 32 species of butterflies and moths, including Henry’s elfin butterfly, spring azure butterfly, pink-edged sulphur butterfly, and the huckleberry sphinx butterfly. Most birds and mammals eat its berries, it attracts a variety of native bees and 30 species of birds.
Mapleleaf Viburnum (Virburnum acerifolium) – host plant for butterfly and moth larvae, including the spring azure butterfly and its berries are a high value food source for birds.
Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) – host plant for butterfly and moth larvae, including red-banded hairstreak.
Strawberry Shrub (Euonymus americanus) – a source of fat and sugar to songbirds and small mammals. This plant attracts bees, beetles, flies, and ants.
Interested in learning about other invasive plants? Blue Ridge Prism has fact sheets and links to information on the most common invasive plants in Virginia.
Featured photo: Burning bush
Courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder
“Alternatives to Burning Bush, Euonymus alatus”, US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.
“Alternatives to Invasive Landscape Plants”, Neal, Cathy, Extension Professor and Specialist, Nursery and Landscape Horticulture, University of New Hampshire, UNH Extension, 31 Jan 2017.
“Burning Bush”, Sarah Wurzbacher, Forestry Extension Education, et. al., Penn State University, Penn State Extension, 14 April 2020.
“Burning Bush, Crandall Park Trees”, Skidmore College, John B Moore Documentary Studies Collaborative.
Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus), Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia, Invasive Plant Factsheet.
“Invasive Plant Control Calendar”, Martin, Susan, Piedmont Master Gardeners, The Garden Shed, Vol. 8, No. 5, May 2022.
“Invasive Plants in Virginia”, Virginia Department of Forestry, 2022.
“Tried and True Native Plants Selections for the Mid-Atlantic”, Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia.
“Virginia Invasive Plant Species List”, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, 26 Feb 2021.