How to Grow Burning Bush

burning bush

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Burning bush is a deciduous shrub native to Asia that has become popular for landscapes in North America. The dense, multi-stemmed, rounded shrub gets its common name from its brilliant red fall foliage. Best planted in the fall or spring, burning brush grows at a moderate pace, adding about a foot of growth per year.

Tiny yellow-green flowers bloom on the plant in the late spring, though they aren’t very showy—however, the red-orange berries that arrive in the fall provide additional decorative value. In some areas, burning bush is regarded as an invasive species, so it's important to grow it in your landscape in a contained and respectful way.

Botanical Name Euonymus alatus
Common Name Burning bush, winged spindle tree, winged euonymus, winged burning bush
Plant Type Deciduous shrub
Mature Size 15-20 ft. tall, 8-12 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial shade
Soil Type Moist but well-drained
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Yellow-green
Hardiness Zones 4-8 (USDA)
Native Area Asia
Toxicity Toxic to humans, dogs, and cats
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

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

Burning bush is a hardy, adaptable shrub that can tolerate most soil conditions unless they are very wet with poor drainage. It readily spreads in two ways: by wildlife (via birds and other animals eating the berries and "depositing" the seeds) or underground through the root system (by pushing up suckers). If left to its own devices, burning bush may easily overrun your garden or landscape, and some states—including Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire—have banned the sale of burning bush due to its invasive tendencies. 

Light

Plant your 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, specifically in the hotter afternoon hours. The more sunlight the plant gets, the brighter its fall foliage display will be.

Soil

While it can adapt to most soil types (besides 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 an alkaline or neutral blend 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 dependant on both the rainfall and humidity levels in your area. When you do water your burning bush, aim your water source at ground or root 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

The aggressive growth of burning bush in many climates, including southern states up through New England and throughout much of the Midwest, is a testament to the plant's adaptability to a wide range of temperature and humidity conditions. There is very little you need to do to help your burning bush thrive if grown in the proper USDA hardiness zones, but you can mulch around the root mound to help keep the plant's roots cool in warmer climates.

Fertilizer

Burning bush shrubs won't need any additional nutrients once established, but young shrubs can benefit from the application of liquid fertilizer. Plan to feed your bush three to four times throughout its growing season, from mid-spring to mid-summer.

Is Burning Bush Toxic?

Toxic components (substances known as alkaloids and cardenolides) found in all parts of burning bush affect humans, dogs, cats, and horses. However, wild birds and rodents eat the berries from this plant without problems. It’s not common for people or animals to eat enough of the plant to result in a fatal dose, as the taste is extremely bitter. Still, the toxins can cause serious symptoms, especially in small children and animals.

The most common result from eating part of a burning bush is a strong laxative effect due to the alkaloids, organic compounds that can impact metabolic processes in the body. Moreover, cardenolides are compounds that can cause an irregular heart rhythm among other cardiac issues. Symptoms of poisoning might not be obvious for roughly 12 to 24 hours after ingestion when the toxins have been absorbed into the bloodstream 

Fortunately, if you wish to prune or remove a burning bush on your property, you don't have to take any precautions to protect your skin like you would when handling poison ivy. Burning bush is harmful only when ingested. If you or your animal experience any of the below issues, contact the proper medical or poison control resources immediately.

Symptoms of Poisoning in Humans

  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Chills
  • Convulsions

Symptoms of Poisoning in Animals

  • Abdominal pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Drooling
  • Low body temperature
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Loss of sight
  • Exhaustion
  • Abnormal heart rate

Burning Bush Varieties

Various cultivars of burning bush exist, ranging in size and appearance. They include:

  • 'Rudy Haag': This varietal matures to be just 3 to 5 feet tall, making it the perfect compact option for a small lawn.
  • 'Pipsqueak': This varietal is also compact (at 5 feet tall) as alluded to by its name.
  • 'Apterus': With smooth stems rather than the distinctive ridges that appear on most varieties, it reaches around 6 feet tall.
  • 'Monstrosus': This burning bush variety has very pronounced ridges on its stems and can mature to be between 15 and 20 feet tall.

Pruning Burning Brush

If you wish to keep the spread of your 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 thanks to a heavy breeze or curious animals.

To completely remove a burning bush that may be undesirable on your property, cut the branches 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. If you have a small burning bush, it usually will be easy enough to complete the removal on your own, but if you have a large shrub, it might take two people to pry the root ball out of the ground.

Common Pests/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, like 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 present, be sure to remove all infected branches or leaves immediately and protect new growth with a fungicide.