- The 15 best trees and shrubs for fall foliage
- Fall foliage is not just for trees: “Red” shrubs
- Why Won’t Burning Bush Turn Red – Reasons A Burning Bush Stays Green
- Burning Bush Stays Green
- Why Won’t Burning Bush Turn Red?
- Burning bush (Not recommended)
- Tree & Plant Care
- Disease, pests, and problems
- Disease, pest, and problem resistance
- Native geographic location and habitat
- Attracts birds, pollinators, or wildlife
- Bark color and texture
- Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture
- Flower arrangement, shape, and size
- Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions
- Burning Bush Pruning, Care, and Planting Tips
- Burning Bush Pruning
- Burning Bush Landscaping Ideas
The 15 best trees and shrubs for fall foliage
By Adrian Higgins Adrian Higgins Gardening columnist November 8, 2017
The lack of rain in recent weeks and lingering summer warmth are likely to diminish the fall color show. But even with a reduced display, the pageantry of this finale forms one of the sweetest garden moments of the year.
Some of your garden plants are going to present magical progressions of color whether you planned for them or not. But if you actively choose and cultivate autumn beauties, you can forgo that trip to New England or Skyline Drive and have your own show at home. All right, that might be a bit of a stretch, but the point is, there are many shade trees, ornamental trees and shrubs with above-par displays.
In selecting 15 of my favorite fall-color plants, I realized that all of them are simply great garden plants of year-round beauty and interest. This is not a planting kit that every garden should have, but suggestions for individual plants that will enhance your landscape. Even if you had an acre or two for the entire lot, chances are your soil and shade conditions wouldn’t work for them all, nor would your overall planting design.
My list is far from comprehensive. It doesn’t include sumacs, for example, or crape myrtles or aronias or blueberry bushes, all of which can have spectacular coloration. One tries to curb one’s enthusiasm.
Individual plants vary in their coloration as well as their stem structure, so it pays to look at them at a well-stocked garden center before buying. These sizes reflect the general stature a decade after planting, aas the plant approaches a mature form. Location, soil conditions and other factors will affect the growth rate. Shade trees, in particular will get substantially larger after several more decades. (pETER HOEY/FTWP) Shade trees
Shade trees cast shade, but they tend to like their heads in the sun. When choosing a site to plant one, worry more about the eventual width than the height.
●Red maple (Acer rubrum): The sugar maple is the poster tree for fall color, but it is likely to be stressed by the heat and humidity of the Mid-Atlantic unless you’re in the mountains. There is a Southern version (A. saccharum subspecies floridanum), but its fall color is not as strong. Enter the red maple, a native tree valued for its fast growth, symmetrical form, smooth gray bark and gorgeous fall color. It is tolerant of poor and wet soils (conditions that lead to more surface roots). Somerset is one of three seedless introductions from the National Arboretum developed for long-lasting, bright red fall coloration and for resistance to a pest called the leafhopper.
●Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba): Putting aside its curiosity value as a prehistoric species, the ginkgo is also a handsome and durable tree. It is versatile, too, and can be used as a street tree, a garden specimen and a high screen. Ginkgos have lofty, open branches full of those distinctive fan-shaped leaves. The big issue with the ginkgo is its fruit — it’s messy, it smells, and it drops over several weeks in early fall. The fruit’s nuts are prized in some East Asian cultures, but if you or your heirs don’t want them, the answer is a male clone such as Autumn Gold.
●Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum): This is a fine-textured conifer with the unusual trait of dropping all its needles before winter. But before they are shed, the leaves shift from bright green to a burnished orange. The effect can be stunning when backlit by the low afternoon sun. The cypress is native to Southern bottomlands and looks best grouped in groves of at least three, if you have the space. In wet areas, the red-brown trunks form handsome buttresses and “knees,” but it is happy in average soil once established and watered during dry spells.
●Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica): Few hardwoods have as reliably stunning fall color as the black gum, also known as the sour gum or black tupelo. The foliage is especially bright and progresses from yellow to orange to scarlet and, finally, red-purple. It is a slow grower and matures to a medium-size tree. It likes moist soil and will take periods of inundation but not continuously wet soils. It is taprooted, and I’d prefer to plant a young container-grown plant rather than a field-dug balled-and-burlap tree. Given its finicky roots, some horticulturists believe it is better to plant in the spring, when the tree is in growth mode. A number of improved varieties have been developed for prolonged leaf color and leaf-spot resistance. In addition to Wildfire, look for Red Rage and Afterburner.
●Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea): Oaks tend to be subdued in their fall coloration, but the scarlet oak is striking for its glowing, deeply lobed red foliage. It does well in average soil and optimally in moist but not wet soils, growing as much as two feet a year. The scarlet oak is the state tree of the District, but it is hard to find in garden centers because its taproot makes it difficult to transplant. For the patient, Earth Sangha Wild Plant Nursery, in Springfield, Va., has saplings in containers. Nature by Design in Alexandria expects to have four- to eight-foot-high container plants in the spring, the optimum season for planting scarlet oak.
(PETER HOEY/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST) Ornamental trees
Ornamental trees are essential focal points and prized specimens in any garden, and their reduced scale makes them ideal for placement in city gardens, next to a patio, along a path or at points of transition in the landscape. All of them benefit from deft and careful pruning when young to develop a pleasing branch structure.
●Persian parrotia (Parrotia persica): As with other large woody plants, the parrotia grows as either a big, multi-stemmed shrub or as a small tree, with a single stem and low branches. Picking a tree form comes down to selecting individual plants in the nursery. Related to the witch hazel and with similar large oval leaves, the parrotia is a standout at this time of year, when the foliage turns yellow, orange and maroon. With age, the exfoliating bark of the parrotia becomes its other extraordinary asset, mottled in gray, green, brown and cream.
●Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida): The native dogwood is beloved for its large white blossoms of spring, but its fall show isn’t too shabby, either. The leaves turn wine-red in early autumn as a reassuring harbinger of fall and winter. Variety selection, location and care are vital in keeping a tree happy and healthy. Appalachian Spring is a superior variety selected for its resistance to anthracnose disease. Other named varieties in the Appalachian series offer protection against powdery mildew disease.
●Japanese maple (Acer palmatum): Japanese maples have beautiful and unexpected combinations of autumn leaf colors. The green-leafed varieties are among the most striking in their autumn coloration. Osakazuki is a classic variety, low-branched and spreading. The fall color is an intense crimson red.
●Sassafras (Sassafras albidum): Valued initially for its bark tea, sassafras is a handsome small tree that forms suckering thickets with time, making it useful for outlying naturalistic parts of a landscape. The suckers can be removed to keep a single specimen, however. The distinctive lobed leaf is a dark glossy green in summer, turning golden and then a rich scarlet in the fall. This is another taprooted native that is best planted as a young container-grown plant. It grows quickly once established.
●Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia): Related to camellias, the Japanese stewartia is valued for its fall color, elegant form and, with age, beautiful bark patterns. Individual branch structure varies, so this is one you should pick out at the nursery. Some horticulturists prefer to plant stewartias in the spring. The Korean stewartia is a closely related species and will do the job just as well.
(Peter Hoey for The Washington Post/Photos by Paul W. Meyer/Morris arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania; Smooth Witherod photo by Mount Cuba Center) Shrubs
Small to medium shrubs function as accent plants and are useful foils to perennials, but larger shrubs work as screens and, moreover, form part of the architecture of the garden.
●Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis): Witch hazels come in many sizes and seasons of interest. The common native species, H. virginiana, is big and twiggy and difficult to place in a small domestic landscape. The Chinese witch hazel is remarkably fragrant, but the species grows to 15 feet or more. Goldcrest is a named variety that reaches a more manageable 10 feet or so. Princeton Gold is a smaller version, growing to six feet, with rich golden fall color. That’s the one I’d plant.
●Fothergilla (Fothergilla x intermedia): The fothergilla is related to witch hazel but grows as a more compact and compliant shrub. Two native species are commonly planted, both with superb fall color. The large fothergilla can reach 10 feet in height. The dwarf fothergilla grows to three to four feet. Mount Airy is a hybrid that reaches approximately six feet and has a characteristically rich fall tapestry of orange, red and red-purple.
●Smooth witherod (Viburnum nudum): Most people know the fragrant Korean spicebush viburnum of April, but other, more refinedviburnums deserve greater use. This includes the smooth witherod. Winterthur is a variety selected for its compact habit and glossy leaves, which turn a wine-red in the fall. The fruiting display — blue berry clusters — relies on the placement of a second, non-varietal V. nudum.
●White enkianthus (Enkianthus perulatus): Why this handsome shrub is still quite rare in gardens is a mystery. The red-vein enkianthus, more upright and open, is easier to find. At maturity, white enkianthus forms a bush that is six feet in height and width, but mounded and compact. The autumn color is a brilliant scarlet. Related to blueberries and azaleas, it prefers rich acid soil in full sun to part shade.
●Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia): The oakleaf hydrangea is a workhorse of the shrub border, attractive in every season. The foliage resembles monster oak leaves, and the shrub in time becomes large and structural. People plant it for its white flower panicles, but in autumn the leaves take on a deep burgundy-red color. The named variety Amethyst, which grows to 5 feet by 6 feet, is one of several new varieties developed for their shorter stature, compact growth and leaf-spot resistance.
Gardening Q&AHiggins will host a live Q&A on trees and other gardening topics Thursday at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.
Fall foliage is not just for trees: “Red” shrubs
As we enjoy the show of trees in autumn we may forget everything else in the landscape. But shrubs can have intensely hued fall leaves. Let’s focus on your options with deciduous shrubs that turn red in autumn. The plants discussed here are noted for eye-catching, and reliably red, fall color on deciduous plants.
a sumac (Rhus) firing up its gorgeous reds; picture by melody
Aronia arbutifolia, Red chokeberry, is an excellent scarlet shrub
This species has some of the best scarlet red autumn color out there. Despite the unattractive name, chokeberry is a useful deciduous shrub. Its fall foliage hues are brilliant red to rival the badly behaved winged euonymus. In addition, chokeberry provides a nice set of red fruit. Grow the cheerful chokeberry in most any reasonable garden situation, but do give it sun for the best fruit and foliage show. ‘Brilliantissima’ is the standard cultivar offering for this Aronia, and is the best choice.
Redvein Enkianthus, another superb red
Enkianthus campanulatus, for which the nearest thing to a common name is redvein enkianthus, offers more gorgeous scarlet red fall color. This Asian group is not nearly as common at nurseries as its close cousins, the azaleas. Still, redvein enkianthus is a top choice for autumn foliage. Redvein grows best in the moist, partly shaded, acidic sites that azaleas like. Read more about these in an article by Todd Boland titled “Redvein Enkianthus – Uncommon but Very Worthwhile.” Todd names the cultivars ‘Red Bell’, ‘Showy Lantern’, ‘Princeton Red Bells’, ‘Sikokianus’ and ‘Hollandia Red’ as all outstanding in their red fall leaves.
Viburnum, popular flowering shrubs that can have great fall color
Many of the deciduous viburnums show impressive fall color in the red range. Along with fall color, they often have showy, possibly fragrant, flowers and attractive fruit. Most are happy in the standard “well drained, average fertility” soil and will give the their best displays with full sun. Viburnums are usually thought of as flowering shrubs, so notes about their fall color may be sketchy in nursery descriptions. Of the many, many Viburnums, these are cited for their good red fall color:
V. carlesii, Koreanspice viburnum, is a medium sized, somewhat upright bush. The red autumn color is an encore performance after the spring show of incredibly fragrant flowers.
V. nudum, witherod, ‘Winterthur’ is a shrub of compact habit and medium size. Blazing fall color sets off striking clusters of dark blue fruit.
V. plicatum tomentosum, doublefile Viburnum, is a medium to large shrub carrying its blossoms along interesting horizontal branching. Choose from the cultivars to best suit the space you have for this spreading shrub.
V. trilobum, American cranberrybush, has rich red fall leaf color highlighted with clusters of long lasting, bright red fruit. This is by nature a large shrub, but compact selections are available.
Rhus, the Sumac genus
The genus Rhus provides several native American sumacs for your landscape. Their fall foliage colors are generally rich and deep red. Sumacs are tough growers that you can throw in any location. They don’t need or especially want the too-often called for “moist well drained organic soil.” A reasonably tolerable, unswampy, site will do fine. Their fall colors can vary but most include significant amounts of red or purpleish red. Plant in full sun for the most intense autumn color. One red flag on sumacs: they sucker, a lot. Use them wisely to avoid constant maintenance.
Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’ is short in stature but long in color. Small flowers give way to red fruit, which is in turn complemented by rich, red to reddish orange, fall leaf color. Gro-Low stays at a resonable one to two foot height. It can be used as a tall ground cover or filler, as it will sucker into a six to eight foot diameter bush. hardy zone 3
Rhus copallina is also known by the names flame leaf sumac, winged sumac, and shining sumac. When you get through all those names, you’ve gotten a pretty good picture of this plant. Its compound leaves are very shiny, borne on “stems’ with noticeable edges (the wings). In fall, the leaves light up with fiery hues. Species winged sumac can grow to large shrub or small tree size, while the selection ‘Prarie Flame’ is a more compact medium size shrub.
Winged Euonymus: The gold standard of red for fall shrub foliage?
Widely used, inarguably red is the Winged Euonymus (Euonymus alata) This is a tough, popular shrub planted ad nauseum in North American commercial landscapes. If you have only noticed one red shrub, it’s probably of this kind. Why the hate for such a striking bush? Because this shrub is so invasive that many nurseries can no longer sell it. Read more about Winged Euonymus in this article by Carrie Lamont, “Don’t Get Burned By Burning Bush!”
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Dave’s Garden PlantFiles
UConn Plant Database (University of Connecticut)
Sincere thanks to admin Melody Rose for the thumbnail photo of Sumac.
Why Won’t Burning Bush Turn Red – Reasons A Burning Bush Stays Green
The common name, burning bush, suggests that the plant’s leaves will blaze a fiery red, and that’s exactly what they are supposed to do. If your burning bush does not turn red, it’s a great disappointment. Why won’t burning bush turn red? There is more than one possible answer to that question. Read on for the most likely reasons your burning bush isn’t changing color.
Burning Bush Stays Green
When you buy a young burning bush (Euonymus alata), its leaves may be green. You will often see green burning bush plants in nurseries and garden stores. The leaves always grow in green but then they are supposed to change to red as summer arrives.
If your green burning bush plants stay green, something is amiss. The most likely problem is lack of sufficient sun, but other issues may be at play when your burning bush isn’t changing color.
Why Won’t Burning Bush Turn Red?
It’s hard to wake up day after day in summer and see that your burning bush stays green instead of living up to its fiery name. So why won’t burning bush turn red?
The most likely culprit is the plant’s location. Is it planted in full sun, partial sun or shade? Although the plant can thrive in any of these exposures, it requires a full six hours of direct sun for the foliage to turn red. If you’ve planted it in a site with partial sun, you may see one side of the foliage blushing. But the rest of the burning bush isn’t changing color. Green or partially green burning bush plants are usually shrubs that do not get the sunshine they need.
If a burning bush does not turn red, it may not be a burning bush at all. The scientific name for burning bush is Euonymus alata. Other plant species in the Euonymus genus look very similar to burning bush when young, but never turn red. If you have a grouping of burning bush plants and one stays completely green while the others blaze red, you might have been sold a different species. You could ask at the place you purchased it.
Another possibility is that the plant is still too young. The red coloration does seem to increase with the shrub’s maturity, so hold out hope.
Then, unfortunately, there is the unsatisfying response that some of these plants just don’t seem to turn red no matter what you do. Some turn pink and an occasional burning bush stays green.
Burning bush (Not recommended)
Tree & Plant Care
A popular dense, rounded shrub because of the bright red fall color.
Tolerant of wide range of soil pH, best in full sun but tolerant of shade.
Well drained soil a must.
Because of invasive tendencies, burning bush is not recommended.
Disease, pests, and problems
Scale, root rots in wet soils, spider mites
Disease, pest, and problem resistance
Tolerant of black walnut toxcitity.
Native geographic location and habitat
Northeastern Asia to central China
Attracts birds, pollinators, or wildlife
Birds are attracted to seed and spread them freely.
It has invasive traits that enable it to spread aggressively.
Bark color and texture
Branches and twigs are green to brown with 2 to 4 corky wings along stems.
Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture
Opposite to sub-opposite, 1 to 3 inches long and 1 1/4 inches wide, sharply serrated margins.
Medium to dark green turn a brilliant red in the fall.
Flower arrangement, shape, and size
Tiny, yellow-green in early May.
Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions
A fleshy 1/4-inch long red to orange aril often lost withing the foliage.
Burning Bush Pruning, Care, and Planting Tips
The Burning Bush, also called the Euonymus alatus, and the winged euonymus, is one of the most colorful shrubs out there. A brilliant, fire-red illuminates off the shrub, catching everyone’s eye. The best part about this shrub is the colorful display that will last for months! Not only does the shrub have great fall color but in the spring and summer it is covered in a beautiful shade of green. While the color adds great appeal to the Burning Bush plant, there are many other attractive qualities. This no maintenance, no headache shrub is easy to grow and extremely hardy. The Burning Bush is a fast-growing shrub. You could use the Burning Bush in a variety of ways, making it easy to place in any landscape. Be warned that it is sure to steal attention from all others around it and make your yard the talk of the neighborhood. Learn some tips and tricks for burning bush pruning, care, and more.
The Burning Bush grows best in partial shade to full sun. It develops and comes into its well-known bright red color when planted and grown in full sunlight. It can however, become very red in areas that receive a few hours of shade each day. This brilliant shrub does very well in areas with a strong hot sun, followed by light, shade in the afternoon. While the Burning Bushes do well in the shade, extended periods of shade will interfere with the beautiful fall color that is anticipated. A more faded reddish pink could be the result of too much shade. Though a pretty color, it does not have the same effect as the bright red hue it is famous for.
The Burning Bush is a very highly adaptable shrub. You can plant it in a variety of soils without any problems or concerns. It prefers a well-drained soil. The PH levels of the soil have no effect on how the Burning Bush grows. This shrub has the ability to grow in all soil PH levels but they do tend to favor acidic soil with PH levels of 6.0-6.5.
Once established, the Burning Bush has a great drought tolerance, requiring little watering. It also has a strong tolerance for a variety of climates. Homeowners all over the country will have no problem growing the Burning Bush.
Burning Bush Pruning
As stated above, the Burning Bush is a no maintenance required shrub. However, like anything, it does require a little TLC. When to prune burning bushes. Pruning your Burning Bush in late winter/early spring will help it stay healthy and looking good. If you neglect to do so, it could lead to more work down the road.
How to Prune Burning Bushes
There are 4 pruning stages your Burning Bush could require.
- Light Pruning
Light pruning is just a matter of maintaining the shape of the Burning Bush. This can be done at any time during the year. Cutting overgrown branches back to the form of the bush during the summer helps to keep it in shape. We suggest cutting branches at a 45’ angle, this allows water to run off easily.
- Routine Pruning
Routine pruning takes place before new growth, usually done in late winter or early spring. During this time you remove dead or diseased wood. Removing the dead or diseased wood close to the main branch or pruning dead plant parts helps to make a healthy bud, allowing healthy wood to grow. In essence, this creates a healthy Burning Bush. Routine pruning (done annually) helps to prevent serious problems which will require more time and care.
- Heavy Pruning
When your Burning Bush has been neglected (usually when routine pruning does not occur) it requires a more invasive pruning process in order to be rejuvenated. Heavy pruning needs to be done in late winter or early spring before new growth. What you will need to do is cut 1/3 of the new canes growing from around the base of the Burning Bush to the ground level. This must be done with a pruning saw or pruning shears. This opens the center of the shrub, letting light in and improves air circulation. At the same time you are also controlling the size and density of the shrub.
- Severe Pruning
This occurs when the Burning Bush has been drastically neglected. Typically, at this point, the shrub is overgrown or sickly. With a saw you must cut the entire Burning Bush to ground level in early spring. This gives new growth plenty of growing time.
Burning Bush Landscaping Ideas
Need Burning Bush landscaping ideas? The Burning Bush is one of those shrubs that could be used in a variety of ways. Its adaptability, size and tolerance make this plant even more incredible. The attention grabbing, Burning Bush could go anywhere in your landscape and serve any purpose. The Burning Bush is great for foundation plants, privacy hedges, borders, entryways, mass planting and even formal planting.
Burning Bushes make great borders and hedges for both small and large properties. We suggest you plant these bushes 5-6 ft. apart if you choose them for your border. Plant several Burning Bushes 1 foot apart to create a hedge. These colorful shrubs makes a great hedge plant. They are very dense and grow into neat, compact hedges that require very little maintenance.The naturally round shape of the Burning Bush makes it a great choice as a focal point in your yard. The bright red beauty does not need to be surrounded by other plants in order to turn heads. It is a perfect specimen plant. The Burning Bush will turn your once mediocre yard into the talk of the neighborhood. The Burning Bush could also be placed in the center of your garden. Surround it with flowers with equally beautiful fall color.
Due to their incredible adaptability and tolerance for weather conditions and pollution, the Burning Bush is great for urban areas. Issues that sometimes inhibit other plants are no problem for the this tough shrub. It is the perfect choice for anyone, anywhere.
If you’re thinking of adding more plants to your yard, it is important to choose ones that pair well with the Burning Bush. The Burning Bush has such a dynamic red color that it over powers most plants. However, there are plants that when paired with the Burning Bush shrub will complement each other well.
Evergreens, woody trees and a few colorful trees all mix well with the Burning Bush. Evergreens are a perfect match for the Burning Bush. They provide the right contrasting background that will make the bright red of the Burning Bush pop! Evergreens are tall, pyramid like, with dark green feathery needles. They pair well with the Burning Bush which is upright, compact and round with smooth red leaves. When the leaves of the Burning Bush start to shed, the beautiful evergreen will provide a great backdrop for the bare branches. We suggest the Deodora Cedar, Japanese Cryptomeria or the Douglas Fir as suitable evergreens. The Crape Myrtle and River Birch pair well to create a forest like vibe for your landscape. These woody trees provide a peeling look, have flaking bark or multi stemmed trunks. These features mixed with the Burning Bush makes for a great combination.
Check out our Evergreen Trees and Shade Trees for complementary options!
Now, to add more color to your landscape, pick trees with primary colors that only enhance the beauty of this shrub. The Burning Bush is a fall delight. Therefore, adding other fall colors will look amazing! Trees with yellow such as the Ginkgo, Quaking Aspen or the Witch Hazel will provide such a contrast leaving people breathless. There are also trees such as the Sugar Maple and Sassafras that have a yellow to orange color to their leaves. These colors will go perfect with the Burning Bush. Perhaps you want to go one step further and bring in more red or a purplish color. The Japanese Maple is a great choice. However, do not be overbearing with these trees. You do not want to take away from or clash with the Burning Bush.
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.
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. 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.
All photos by Emily DeBolt, CNLP.