How to Grow and Care for Burning Bush (Winged Spindle Tree)

burning bush

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Burning bush is a deciduous shrub that has been very popular in North American landscaping—perhaps too popular. The dense, multi-stemmed, rounded shrub gets its common name from the transformation of its medium-green elliptical leaves into brilliant red fall foliage; the red-orange berries that arrive in the fall provide additional decorative value. Tiny yellow-green flowers bloom on the plant in the late spring, though they aren’t very showy. This native of eastern Asia has become widely naturalized in North America, so it should be used thoughtfully, with care taken not to allow its spread outside the garden.

Best planted in the fall or spring from a container-grown nursery plant, burning bush grows at a moderate pace, adding about a foot of growth per year. If properly maintained, it will survive for decades. This plant contains alkaloid compounds that are mildly toxic.

Common Name Burning bush, winged spindle tree
Botanical Name Euonymus alatus
Family Celastraceae
Plant Type Shrub
Mature Size 3-20 ft. tall, 3-12 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Moist but well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, neutral, alkaline
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Yellow
Hardiness Zones 4-8 (USDA)
Native Area Asia
Toxicity Mildly toxic to humans, toxic to dogs, cats, and horses
burning bush outside a home
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault
closeup of a burning bush
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault
berries on a burning bush
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault
burning bush
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Burning Bush Care

This is a very easy shrub to grow in just about any moist, well-drained soil in a full-sun or partial shade location. Some cultivars can get quite large, so they will require frequent pruning in order to keep them at a manageable size.

Plant burning bush in the spring from a potted nursery specimen at the same depth it was growing in its container. When used in shrub borders or as screening plants, give the shrubs plenty of space (5 to 6 feet), as they will quickly spread to create thickets. Even when planted as a hedge, space the plants at least 2 feet apart.

The main challenge with this shrub is keeping it from spreading outside the garden. Constant attention to removing suckers is required, and truly conscientious gardeners may even want to remove the red-orange berries that allow birds to so readily spread the seeds.

Warning

Euonymus alatus is native to Asia, but it has naturalized in North America with such vigor that its use as a landscape plant is now strongly discouraged in many areas, especially the MIdwest and Northeast. It is a very hard plant to control, since it readily spreads by birds and other animals who eat the berries and "deposit" the seeds wide and far. Some states have banned the sale of this species due to its invasive habit of crowding out native species.

Light

Plant burning bush in an area that gets full sunlight, gifting the plant with rays for at least six to eight hours a day. In warmer climates, the bush can stand a partially shady spot, especially during the hotter afternoon hours. But be aware that shadier conditions reduce the splendor of the fall foliage display.

Soil

While it can adapt to most soil types (except for soggy soil with poor drainage), burning bush prefers average soil with a moderate moisture level. It also favors a slightly acidic soil pH but will grow in alkaline or neutral soil, as well. Most important to the plant is its soil's drainage—too much moisture can lead to root rot.

Water

Burning bush is a drought-tolerant plant once established and generally has low-to-moderate watering needs. Water as appropriate for your climate, which will be dependent on both the rainfall and humidity levels in your area. When you do water a burning bush, aim your water source at ground level instead of overhead—this method will prevent the leaves of the bush from getting drenched and keep fungal problems from occurring.

Temperature and Humidity

Burning bush grows extremely well in just about any climate conditions found in USDA zones 4 to 8. There is very little you need to do to help a burning bush thrive, but in warmer climates, you can mulch around the root mound to help keep the plant's roots cool.

Fertilizer

Burning bush won't need any additional nutrients once established, but young shrubs can benefit from the application of liquid fertilizer. Plan to feed a young bush three to four times throughout its growing season, from mid spring to midsummer. But a mature plant is best denied fertilizer, as it only serves to increase the speed with which it spreads.

Types of Burning Bush

The native species is a fairly large plant that can grow up to 20 feet, so many of the cultivars are bred to be smaller, more manageable shrubs. There are several cultivars of burning bush available in the trade, including:

  • 'Compactus': This is a semi-dwarf variety that grows to 9 to 10 feet tall, making it a more manageable landscape plant with many uses.
  • 'Rudy Haag': This dwarf variety matures to be just 3 to 5 feet tall, making it the perfect compact option for a small landscape.
  • 'Pipsqueak': This is another compact variety (at 5 feet tall).
  • 'Apterus': With smooth stems rather than the distinctive ridges that appear on most varieties, this type reaches about 6 feet in height.
  • 'Monstrosus': This variety has very pronounced ridges on its stems and can reach 15 to 20 feet tall at maturity.

At one time, several cultivars that were reputed to be sterile were available, but these varieties have since been shown to hybridize readily into fertile varieties, leading to further problems with invasive spread.

Pruning

If you wish to keep the spread of a burning bush in check, prune off suckers coming up from the ground whenever you find them. To also halt spreading via the seeds, handpick the berries as soon as they form in fall (which means sacrificing their ornamental value) and seal them in a yard waste bag so they don't spread.

Major pruning is not necessary for this plant, but it can help keep the shrub neat and full if you give it a good trim every other year or so. This is best done in the early spring before new growth begins. Start by removing any dead or broken branches, then cut as much as one-third of all the longer stems, right down to ground level. The goal is to open up the interior of the shrub to light and air.

A neglected shrub that hasn't been pruned for many years can benefit from a hard rejuvenation pruning that cuts the entire shrub down to just a few inches above ground level. This, too, is best done in early spring. It will take some time for the plant to recover, but you will be rewarded with very vigorous growth and a spectacular shrub within a year or so.

Propagating Burning Bush

Burning bush self-seeds very readily, but if you are growing a named cultivar, these volunteers may not look like the parent plant. A dwarf cultivar, for example, may produce seeds that grow into towering 20-foot plants. So the best way to propagate an exact duplicate is by rooting softwood stem cuttings from the parent plant:

  1. Use sterilized pruners to cut a 4- to 6-inch length of stem that has at least four pairs of leaves. This is best done during the active growing season, no later than midsummer.
  2. Strip off the bottom leaves, then plant the cutting in a small pot filled with moist seed-starter mix. (Some gardeners find it useful to place the planted cutting in a loosely secured plastic bag to hold in moisture.) A blend of ordinary potting mix and perlite or sand makes a good rooting medium.
  3. Set the pot in a spot with bright, indirect light and keep the potting mix moist until roots have developed (you will feel resistance when you tug on the stem). This can take several weeks.
  4. When roots have developed, transplant the cutting into a larger pot filled with standard potting mix and continue growing in a sunny location. The new plant can be transplanted into the garden when it is about 1 foot tall. If you are overwintering the potted cutting, move it to a sheltered location for the winter, such as a cold frame, unheated garage, or porch. It should be ready to plant the following spring or summer after active growth is well underway.

How to Grow Burning Bush From Seed

Burning bush self-seeds so readily that you are likely to lament the fact that it grows from seeds at all. Simply scattering a handful of berries in the desired location will very likely result in volunteer seedlings the next spring. The more likely goal is to prevent this plant from self-seeding, which can be accomplished by systematically removing the berries before they ripen in fall.

Potting and Repotting Burning Bush

This is a suckering plant that quickly fills up a container, so it is almost never grown in pots, except when you are propagating it from cuttings.

Overwintering

This shrub requires no winter protection. It's best to reduce watering in late fall, as this plant doesn't like its roots to sit in moisture over the winter months.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Chances are, if you have a burning bush on your property, you will at some point have to contend with spider mites, which can be a big issue for the plant. If you notice your plant browning or dying off quickly and have already ruled out other culprits (like root rot or fungal diseases), spider mites are likely to blame. Give your plant the once-over, keeping your eyes peeled for any telltale signs like fine webs at the branch joints.

To eradicate your plant of spider mites, you can first try blasting the bush with strong sprays of water to remove the mites from the plant. If that doesn't work, treat the plant with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil such as neem oil, until all signs of infestation have ceased.

Another issue you may encounter with burning bush is powdery mildew, which will appear as a fluffy grey coating on the leaves of the plant. If the infection is severe, you can remove all infected branches or leaves immediately and protect new growth with a fungicide. However, powdery mildew is almost unavoidable in many climates, and many gardeners simply ignore it, as it rarely causes serious harm.

How to Get Burning Bush to Bloom

The yellow-green flowers that appear in spring are not very showy, so coaxing blooms is not a common goal. Flowers are, however, a prerequisite for the orange-red berries that appear in fall. But these berries are best avoided, as they can lead to rampant self-seeding. Birds and other wildlife will eat the berries, too, and help to spread the seeds outside your garden.

If, for some reason, you want the shrub to flower and produce fruit, then make sure it has plenty of sunlight and regular moisture—that's all that's required.

Common Problems With Burning Bush

This shrub is largely problem-free—except for its penchant to spread much more aggressively than you want. The cost of enjoying the spectacular fall foliage is that you should be willing to spend time monitoring the shrub and removing suckers to enforce good behavior.

FAQ
  • How can I use burning bush in the landscape?

    Burning bush can be a beautiful ornamental feature for your landscape, thanks to the striking visual interest it provides each fall. Because of this eye-catching display—and its hardy, easy-to-grow nature—many gardeners plant them alone as accents, but they can also be grouped to form a hedge or privacy screen.

  • How do I get rid of a burning bush?

    Should you grow weary of the rampant spread of a burning bush and want to remove it, start by cutting the stems all the way down to the ground. Then, dig around the edges of the root ball, prying it out of the ground. Search the soil for any remaining roots to remove (they can still sprout suckers if you don’t remove them), then fill the hole with dirt, and continue to watch the area for at least a full growing season for any signs of suckers.


    Careful application of a brush-killing herbicide applied to new suckers as they appear will gradually kill any remnants of the plant.

  • Is there another bright red shrub that isn't so invasive?

    Several other species in the Euonymus genus have bright red fall foliage but are less invasive than burning bush. For example, you can consider:

    • Euonymus planipes (spindle tree) an 8- to 12-foot shrub that has brilliant crimson red fall foliage. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.
    • Euonymus carnosus (Japanese Euonymus) is a 12- to 16-foot species with brilliant red fall foliage. It is hardy in zones 4 to 7.
    • In addition, a native North American sumac, Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac), offers a good alternative to burning bush.
  • How long does burning bush live?

    With its habit of gradually spreading through suckers, a burning bush will colonize into a thicket that can live indefinitely if left unattended.

Article Sources
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  1. https://www.invasiveplantatlas.org/subject.html?sub=3023