Burning Bush Shrub: Poster Child for Invasive Plants

Loved for Its Fall Color, Hated for Its Spreading and Poisonous Traits

Burning bush's fall color is spectacular; unhappily, it is an invasive plant.
Burning bush's fall color is spectacular; unhappily, it is a poisonous, invasive plant. David Beaulieu

Taxonomy, Botany, and Traits of Burning Bush Shrubs

Plant taxonomy classifies burning bush as Euonymus alata. Various cultivars exist, including compact types named 'Rudy Haag' and 'Compactus.' Burning bushes are deciduous shrubs.

For most of the year, the cork-like strips that protrude from this plant's branches are its chief selling point. But all of that changes in autumn, when these great fall-color shrubs put on a fall-foliage show for the ages.

The fall-foliage color ranges from red to pinkish-red. The shrub also bears reddish-orange berries in autumn. This plant can grow to be over 15 feet tall, but the 'Rudy Haag' cultivar matures to be just 3-5 feet by 3-5 feet (despite its name, the 'Compactus' cultivar is less compact, reaching dimensions of 10x10).

Planting Zones, Growing Conditions, and Plant Care (Pruning)

This shrub is cold-hardy to USDA plant hardiness zone 4; the southern end of its range is usually listed as zone 8. The plants are indigenous to Asia, giving them their "alien" status in North America. Burning bush prefers a well-drained soil. Grow it in full sun for optimal fall-foliage color.

Pruning is not necessary, but aesthetic tastes do, of course, vary. Some homeowners prune burning bush (it can even be seen occasionally growing in well-maintained hedges) to control its size. Others, who do not wish to spoil the plant's natural shape, do not prune it, instead giving free rein to its natural branching pattern, as they would for forsythia bushes, for example.

Fertilize with a complete fertilizer in spring.

Burning bush shrubs spread in two ways:

  1. By air (birds eat the berries and "deposit" the seeds).
  2. Underground through the root system, by pushing up suckers.

If you wish to check this spread, it will require additional landscape maintenance work on your part.

The suckers should be pruned off whenever you find them. To halt any spreading via seeding, hand pick the berries as soon as they form (which means, of course, sacrificing their ornamental value).

Warnings: Invasive Plant, Poisonous Plant

Burning bush is an invasive plant in North America. If you are looking for substitutes to consider that also provide great fall-foliage color, some alternatives are supplied below.

A poisonous plant, burning bush should not be grown in your landscaping if you raise livestock, let nibbling cats or dogs loose in the yard, or have small children who might be tempted to see what the berries taste like. Not only the berries, but also other parts of this plant are poisonous. According to the Pet Poison Helpline, cardiac glycosides have been found in this toxic shrub.

Uses in Landscaping: Erosion Control, Fall and Winter Interest 

Burning bush makes a spectacular specimen plant in autumn, even when planted singly. But it is at its most spectacular in mass plantings, forming a sea of red in fall.

Moreover, the corky ridges along the plant's new branches hold snow, making the shrub not only a fall standout, but also one that affords winter interest in the landscape.

Before its invasive nature in North America became widely known, states in the eastern United States sometimes installed mass plantings of it along roadsides, whether for erosion control or simply for their ornamental value.

Origins of Botanical and Common Names

The Greek word, Euonymus means "well-named." While, at face value, it suggests good fortune, this moniker is thought perhaps to be ironic, as in, "This plant will bring you anything but good fortune" (see p.26 of Sappi What's in a Name: The Meanings of the Botanical Names of Trees, by Dr. Hugh Glen). The Latin, alata means "winged"; these plants are, in fact, also called "winged euonymus." This reference to "wings" derives from the cork-like ridges that protrude from the branches. A relative of the plant, Euonymus europaeus, is called "spindle tree," because its wood was traditionally used to make spindles; thus our plant, Euonymus alata, is also referred to as "winged spindle tree."

The plant's primary common name, "burning bush" derives from the plant's brilliant fall foliage, but it may also contain an allusion to Exodus 3 in the Hebrew bible, in which God appears to Moses in a bush that, while on fire, does not burn up. Euonymus alata, likewise, is "on fire" (that is, it bears a fiery red color) in fall, but it is not consumed by those flames.

Alternatives to Invasive Burning Bush

This alien forms dense thickets in eastern North American forests (evidence of this can be seen in the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut, for example), thickets that can out-compete native plants and form a monoculture. Some eastern U.S. states are now banning the importation of burning bush (thus giving it something of an illegal status) and other invasive plants.

As a fall-foliage alternative to burning bush in this region, sumac is often recommended. Indeed, as is observed in this article on sumac, sumac colors up early in autumn and is one of the most underrated plants for fall foliage. Other shrubs to substitute to achieve good fall color displays include: 

  1. Oakleaf hydrangea
  2. Arrowwood viburnum
  3. Doublefile viburnum
  4. Korean spice viburnum
  5. Virginia sweetspire
  6. Dwarf bottlebrush
  7. Witch hazel
  8. Stewartstonian azalea