Burning bush has spectacular fall foliage, but this fact does not keep the shrub from being one of the most hated plants in America. Find out why. Also learn how to grow this controversial bush, plus what alternatives exist in case you decide against growing it.
Taxonomy, Botany, and Traits of Burning Bush Shrubs
Plant taxonomy classifies burning bush as Euonymus alata and as belonging to the bittersweet family.
For most of the year, the cork-like strips that form the outer ridge of 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, and 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 to 5 feet by 3 to 5 feet, meaning it lives up to its "compact" billing, as does Pipsqueak at 5 feet tall. Despite its name, the Compactus cultivar is less compact, sometimes reaching 8 feet tall, as does Little Moses (despite being advertised as similar in size to Rudy Haag); FireBall can stay more compact, with a size range of from 4 to 7 feet tall.
Two other cultivars are noteworthy based on the absence of corky ridges or the enhancement of this feature:
- Apterus lacks such ridges altogether, offering smooth branches.
- Monstrosus has extra large corky ridges.
Planting Zones, Growing Conditions, 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.
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 it with a complete fertilizer in spring.
Burning bush shrubs spread in two ways:
- By air (via birds, who eat the berries and "deposit" the seeds)
- 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, handpick 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. A poisonous plant, too, 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 great 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 its ornamental value.
Origins of the Names, and Two Related Plants
The Greek word, Euonymus, means "well-named." While, at face value, it suggests good fortune, this name is thought perhaps to be ironic, as in, "This plant will bring you anything but good fortune" (Sappi What's in a Name: The Meanings of the Botanical Names of Trees, Dr. Hugh Glen, p.26).
The Latin word alata means "winged"; these plants are, in fact, also called "winged euonymus." This reference to "wings" comes from the cork-like ridges that stick out 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," comes 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," in the sense that it bears a fiery red color in fall, but it is not consumed by those flames.
Euonymus europaeus is a tree that grows to be 15 to 25 feet tall. A large shrub or small tree, American wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) can also reach a height of 25 feet. Like burning bush, both have good fall color and produce a showy fruit. Of the three, only American wahoo is native to North America.
Alternatives to Invasive Burning Bush
This alien forms dense thickets in eastern North American forests, thickets that can out-compete native plants and take over an area. Some Northeastern U.S. states (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut) have banned the importation of burning bush.
Sumac is a good fall-foliage alternative to burning bush in this region. Indeed, sumac colors up early in autumn and is one of the most underrated plants for fall foliage. For fall color, sumac is one of the few shrubs that can truly compete with burning bush. Some poorer substitutes (on an aesthetic level) for fall color displays include:
- Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
- Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
- Doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum)
- Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii)
- Sweetbells leucothoe (Leucothoe racemosa)
- Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)
- Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
- Dwarf bottlebrush (Fothergilla gardenii Mount Airy)
- Redvein enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus)
- Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia)
- Stewartstonian azalea (Rhododendron x Gable Stewartstonian)