Burning Bush Plant Profile

A Beautiful Shrub With Some Undesirable Traits

Burning bush with its spectacular red fall color
David Beaulieu

Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) 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. The shrub is best planted in the fall or spring and adds about a foot of growth per year. Tiny yellow-green flowers bloom in the late spring, though they aren’t showy. But the red-orange berries that arrive in the fall provide decorative value.

Unfortunately, burning bush is regarded as an invasive species and is not recommended in many areas. In addition, all parts of burning bush are toxic to humans and some animals, due to substances known as alkaloids and cardenolides. They can lead to gastrointestinal issues as well as cardiac abnormalities. 

Botanical Name Euonymus alatus
Common Name Burning bush, winged spindle, winged euonymus
Plant Type Deciduous shrub
Mature Size 15 to 20 feet tall and 8 to 12 feet wide
Sun Exposure Full sun to part shade
Soil Type Average, moderately moist
Soil pH Slightly acidic
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Yellow-green
Hardiness Zones 4 to 8
Native Area China, Japan, Korea, eastern Russia

How to Grow Burning Bush Plants

A burning bush can be a beautiful ornamental feature for your landscape, especially thanks to the fall interest it provides. Many gardeners plant them alone as accents. They can also be grouped to form a hedge or 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) and underground through the root system (by pushing up suckers).

Note: Some U.S. 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 sun to part shade. If you grow it in a spot that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight per day, you will get brighter fall foliage.

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 prefers a slightly acidic soil pH but will grow in alkaline soil.

Water

Burning bush is drought-tolerant once established and has low to moderate watering needs. Water as appropriate for your climate, but avoid overhead watering if you notice any fungal problems.

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 testament to the plant's adaptability to a wide range of temperature and humidity conditions. Mulch can help to keep its roots cool in the warmer zones.

Fertilizer

Young shrubs benefit the most from feeding. You can apply a liquid fertilizer three or four times during the growing season, from mid-spring to mid-summer.

Varieties of Burning Bush

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

  • 'Rudy Haag' matures to be just 3 to 5 feet tall, meaning it lives up to its compact billing.
  • 'Pipsqueak' also is compact at 5 feet tall.
  • 'Compactus' is less compact, sometimes reaching 8 feet tall.
  • 'Apterus' has smooth stems, rather than the distinctive ridges that appear on most varieties, and reaches around 6 feet tall.
  • 'Monstrosus' has very pronounced ridges and can mature at 15 to 20 feet tall.

Toxicity of Burning Bush

The toxic components 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. But 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, the cardenolides are compounds that can cause an irregular heart rhythm among other cardiac issues. 

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.

Symptoms of Poisoning

Symptoms of poisoning might not be obvious for roughly 12 to 24 hours after ingestion, when the toxins have been absorbed in the bloodstream. Some of the most common symptoms for both people and animals include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Abnormal heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Drooling
  • Dilated pupils
  • Tremors
  • Unconsciousness

If you notice any of these symptoms in a person or a pet, contact a medical professional immediately. IV fluids are a common treatment in mild to moderate cases to flush out the toxins. More severe cases also might require that oxygen be given to the patient, as well as pumping the patient's stomach. In most cases, recovery occurs within a few days after treatment.

Pruning and Eradication

If you wish to check the spread of your burning bush, prune off suckers coming up from the ground whenever you find them. To halt spreading via the seeds, handpick the berries as soon as they form in autumn (which means, of course, sacrificing their ornamental value). Make sure to seal the berries in a yard waste bag, so they don't spread on your lawn. These are more tedious than difficult tasks, though you might need a ladder if parts of the shrub are out of reach.

To completely remove a burning bush, cut the branches all the way down to the ground. Then, dig around the edges of the root ball, and pry it out of the ground. Search the soil for any remaining roots, as these still can sprout suckers if you don’t remove them. Fill the hole with dirt, and continue to watch the area for at least a full growing season for suckers. Remove those with their roots whenever you spot them. 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.