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Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Truth about Burning Bush

It is easy to be quite impressed with the Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) at this time of year, when its best feature, its fall foliage, is displayed in full glory. At first glance, especially in its little one gallon container in the nursery, it appears to be a nice, basic shrub that provides brilliant red fall foliage. But there are some traits of this shrub that every gardener needs to be aware of before they rush out to get one or more for their own garden.

The Burning Bush is a bit over used, so maybe you were going to pass on it anyway? You can go to nearly any place where shrubs are sold, be that an upscale garden center or a big box store, and find Burning Bush for sale. They are often sold in one gallon containers, looking for all the world like a nice small shrub about a foot high, and listed as Euonymus alatus ‘Compacta’. Compacta? That means small to most people, even if they don't claim to know any Latin, so they buy several and plant them some place where they want a nice little shrub that grows two or three feet in size.

They are then surprised to find that “compacta” in the Euonymus alatus world means it gets to 10 feet tall and nearly as wide versus 15 feet tall and 15 feet wide for the species. I don’t think people even look at the plant label, or maybe there is no label with the plant when they buy it. Regardless, now they have a shrub planted without enough room to grow. How do they solve that problem? Generally they solve it by shearing their shrub back each summer to keep it to a manageable size.

In shearing it back they then lose the shrub’s best features, the bright red fall color. If you look around at the balls and squares of shorn Burning Bush right now, you will find that most of them are a dark, maroon-ish red, and don’t really stand out much in the landscape. It is the leaves at the tips of the branches that have the best color, and that growth is all removed with shearing.

Plus, when people shear them back they shape them into little balls and squares and other forms that weren’t intended to be in a garden, unless it is a topiary garden. The only time I would shear them like that is if I were using them as a hedge, which I’ve seen done and it doesn’t look too bad. They are certainly a better choice for a hedge than common privet, Ligustrum sp., if you ask me.

The Burning Bush also needs a sunny location if it is to turn maximum red. In shady spots, I’ve seen the leaves turn a washed out pink or have no color at all. The pink is not too bad, actually, but it is certainly not the full brilliant red that you see when the shrub is in full sun.

Perhaps the most controversial characteristic of the Burning Bush is that they aren’t from around here. They are from someplace in Asia and they are now considered an invasive species in some areas because they have been found growing in naturalized and wild areas.

Should you be concerned about this and chop down the Burning Bush in your garden?

I don’t think so, unless of course you have underestimated its size and are cutting it back into balls or squares each year or you’ve chosen a site without enough sun. Or, per the article I’ve linked to above, you might consider removing yours if you’ve planted it near a woodland or other naturalized area. Then I’d consider apologizing to it and moving it on to the mulch pile and then going about finding a more suitable shrub. I would recommend perhaps a nice Viburnum or maybe a Fothergilla? I have some very nice Fothergilla that turns all kinds of colors in the fall, plus it flowers in the spring, whereas the flowers of the Burning Bush are inconspicuous and not even worth a mention. It really only draws attention to itself in the fall.

By the way, the picture above is of this shrub in my sister’s garden, taken just as it was starting to change color. I believe she’s done right by the Burning Bush. She planted it where it could get to its full size in a good sunny location, so it is a striking accent, especially in the fall. As a large shrub, it also provides shelter for birds. And as far as I know, she doesn’t have a bunch of Burning Bush growing up all over the yard, so I think she should leave it alone and enjoy it.

What do you think of the Burning Bush, Euonymus alatus ‘Compacta’?

29 comments:

Kathy said...

You've summed up the problems with burning bush quite nicely. I would add blueberries to your list of alternatives, but only for those of us who have acid soil. They turn a brilliant red in the fall.

Blackswamp_Girl said...

I agree with Kathy--you've summed everything up very well. One thing I would add: I have a small garden and so have to choose plants with multiple-season interest... and I just don't consider this plant to be interesting unless it's turning colors in the fall.

trey said...

Here the Burning Bush is a novelty. Most of California is too mild to get it to turn bright red so it’s not used much. Here in the foothills and mountains is the only area in California that gets cold enough for the shrub. That may also be the reason it’s not a pest here.

Often when people move from the bay area or So. Cal the first thing they want to plant is fall color trees and bushes. You just don’t get reliable fall color in those places. Right now I am looking out the window at a group of 5 gallon Burning bush that is at the peak of color, where the red starts to turn almost pinkish.

I had read that in some places it’s a pest. Not here. Scotch Broom (Cytisus) and Tree of Heaven (Ailianthus) take that role.

Jenn said...

There is a native replacement for the elatus - the Eastern Wahoo Euonymus atropurpureus is the bush I am going to replace my elatus with. Again, it's a large shrub, 12' tall and wide.

And I've not seen the fall color in person, I suspect it's less incandescent - but I find as my garden matures (and my tastes change) that I want just a bit less 'oomph' and a bit more blending in my fall beds...

Jenn said...

Blackswamp Girl - this shrub does make a fantastic untrimmed hedge if you have the property to put it on.

And I have always been attracted to the untrimmed shape of it, the leaf patterns are a lovely graceful backdrop. But if you hack the plant at all, it loses all of its charm for me.

Kathy said...

As the owner of the pictured burning bushes, I like them very much. I have not had any trouble with them being invasive. I like all of my bushes, etc to grow in a natural form, I seldom trim anything. These burning bushes provide color in the fall, but maybe of more importance for me, they provide shade for the screened in porch, which faces west. You get a sense of privacy while still getting filtered light. Also, the cat, who only goes outside on the enclosed porch, like to sit and watch the birds that sit in the bush. These bushes are 13 years old and I hope they live for many mnore years.
Kathy

Blackswamp_Girl said...

Shade and privacy, that's good... and the height/density would be good for a hedge, too. Frankly, now that I think about it, they would also be a good backdrop for other flowers and plants.

I guess that all too often I see them used around here as a focal point, where they only really serve that purpose during the fall. There is one house that I drive past on the way to work that has 5 of them, each spaced about 10 feet apart with only grass in between them, and they are clipped to 4ft. round shrubs. Ugh.

Sissy said...

The Burning Bushes around here are spectacular. Some are chopped, but they still turn a brilliant red. I wonder all the time about the invasive thing. I see the grapevine and the kudzu as an issue and certainly the honeysuckle and the privet, but I have never seen a Burning Bush or the Barberry, as I wander thru the woods. EVER!! I know it must be a factor somewhere, but not here...
Can you tell me what kind of aster is in front of the bush? It grows well, here, and I would love to get some!!

Carol said...

Sissy, that's just a common aster, one that has been passed around the family.

Anonymous said...

See this site for more on it being invasive. Birds eating the seeds are carriers.
http://tncweeds.ucdavis.edu/alert/alrteuon.html

Anonymous said...

I saw a dwarf variety on a website which says it only grows 4 - 6 foot tall. Any comments on this variety. I really would like to plant them along my front porch.

Anonymous said...

I plan on planting 7 of them about 8-10 feet apart and turning them loose on a lot, hopefully giving me a wall, for many purposes- keep the deer down, maybe, they have wore a path through my yard, and warm up the the area for flowers and roses over there on the lot when winter comes. I have found by planting large bushes I can get a higher zone for my flowers. The reason I am on this blog is I bought 3 so far, and two have different leaves than the other one and yet all have the same tag- 15-20 ft tall- that is what I want.
Some have small leave and one has larger leaves. Anyone know why?

Marlys said...

I have been trying to grow burning bushes and just purchased them again for the 3rd time (crazy???) I live in Minnesota zone 3-4 and have planted them in a retaining wall the sits in the wind on the west side of our home, they never make it through the winter. Should I return these plants, and does anyone have an idea for replacement bushes?

JEANNE ILLENYE said...

I have dozens of burning bushes and LOVE them...as do the small songbirds who seek shelter from Hawks.

My burning bushes close to the house grow a minimum of 12 inches per year and are about 8 ft. tall by nearly as wide so I must prune them into huge rounded shapes (like Colonial Williamsburg style) or we'd not see out our windows or be able to walk on our brick path through the garden. Nevertheless, they are healthy and hardy here in Michigan and perform a marvellous bright red/pink Fall display.

Even in the shade I've found them to be colorful but those I don't prune. They are also amazingly drought tolerant.

There are areas on our property where I want them to run wild and say the larger the better. So when I purchased six more to create a shield on the hill so I don't see the neighbor's kids' junk, I have been disappointed because I believe the nursery sold me a dwarf variety as it's only grown a measly few inches per season at best!! They TOLD me they were Euonymus Alatus Compactus which should grow to 8 ft. but WHEN...in ten years?? Anyhow, they're lovely and the rabbits have discovered them so pruned them at the base, unfortunately. Just wish I'd purchased the largest variety like I'd asked for.

I have never seen them in the woods invading our natural landscape, either. But perhaps the author knows much more than I do in this regard.

Overall, I find this bush to be magnificent in any form and don't care what anyone says about "overuse" which I'd never heard before...you could say the same about the magnificent English gardens with their century old Yews...but does anyone complain? Nope! Same here. I highly recommend the Burning Bush in ANY form!!! Enjoy!

Jeanne

JEANNE ILLENYE said...

Hi, Marlys,

If you've not had success with burning bushes in your site, don't subject yet more plants to certain death...try something else or re-evaluate entirely.

Much to consider. Maybe your soil isn't the best, maybe they are drying out in winter as you mentioned they're on a retaining wall and in the wind. Their tops are being hit hard and with the retaining wall their roots are being hit. I don't know what kind of wall you have, how far away they are planted from the actual wall, if there is too much drainage material there, if the wall is pitched and they dehydrate, if they're planted too deep, too shallow, if they're mulched with organic matter, maybe they weren't watered enough in the Fall, etc.

Maybe try something native to your particular area/zone and proven to be hardy in your climate. Maybe try something low growing that doesn't get hard hit in the wind, or re-evaluate the wall itself or the soil and drainage substructure. Maybe install a fence for privacy if that's what you'd like, and perhaps that may even provide enough protection for something to grow there inside and protected from wind. Lots to think about....

My best suggestion would be to consult a professional (and mention all these ideas) rather than subject more beautiful burning bushes to certain death this winter in the wrong site. Move them elsewhere so you can enjoy them and they can enjoy living and flourishing.
Simply contact a professional to evaluate your soil, wall, drainage, fence windbreak, plant options, etc.

Good luck and let us know what happens! :o) Jeanne

wolfy said...

Can I trim it in the winter after the red leaves fall off? I would think that would allow me to control the size, and then still get growth and color next season, right? Or does it grow too much in summer to be controllable?

Thanks!

Garden Lily said...

Good summary. Our original landscaper planted 5 of these bushes, and I love every one of them, each turning colour at different times due to location (sun, prevaling winds or whatever). I have been shocked by the fast growth rate, but still enjoy them (and even thinking of adding 1 more...) I think they have a wonderful shape even when green, but for a few weeks of the year, they are spectacular.

char said...

Hi, I'm on the border of MA and NH with a BB that I trimmed back to a globe shape, but it is getting too big to trim anymore. I have never had offspring berries, but always lovely color in the fall. Should I cut it back losing most foliage and hope it comes back to start our wonderful trimming dance again, or will I kill it? Another opportunity is that I might be able to get it moved to an area where our town had awful tree damage and it could be put to good use for some color and at least a temporary tree solution.

Should I take off 2-3' off and let it grow? Should I move it now? Also, when should I either sheer the bush or move it so I don't kill it?

Thank you,
confused...

Anonymous said...

Burning Bush is an invasive plant. It crowds out native plants and creates a monotypic stand, and the massive root system doesn't allow for any growth underneath the plants. DON'T PLANT THIS KILLER.

Anonymous said...

I've planted dwarf burning bushes in both of my previous homes and been very happy with them. In both cases they were planted in a planter box, and I had no problems with them being invasive or taking over the area. In the first home I had, I planted 3 or 4 of them in a 16' x 4' planter box facing the south. Every fall they exploded in color, and after 2-3 years I did have to start triming them for the area, but they still had plenty of color and looked great.

Anonymous said...

I planted a road frontage with two burning bushes then one purple smoke bush, Two burning bushes the one purple smoke bush, two burning bushes and the one purple smoke bush.. and I did this on each side of my drive way.. My purple smoke bushes grew 4 foot in one year.. my burning bushes grew maybe 1 foot in one year so the burning bushes are growing very slow compared to my purple smoke bushes.. Any opinions from landscappers on how this will look once I have a hedgerow growing?

Anonymous said...

Hey Garden Faries, come visit me!!! My garden is really messy. It needs some cleaning please.

David Beaulieu said...

I'd like to pick up on what JEANNE ILLENYE said in her 6/30/09 post. I agree with her regarding "overuse." I understand those who object to burning bush because of its invasive nature in some regions. What I do not accept is the "overuse" argument -- whether for burning bush or anything else. A plant is overused only if you think it is. Period. And if you, yourself think a plant is overused, you obviously won't grow it on your land. End of story. That personal opinion on your part about a particular plant should not, however, influence any other homeowner's decision as to whether to use it or not. If I like a plant, I'll use it: my land, my choice. I do understand that professional landscapers have to take into account overuse, because they have reputations to maintain. But from the homeowner's perspective, what should be considered overused is the "overuse" argument, itself. Don't try to tell me what I should like. The fact that many other people do or do not grow the plant in question does not influence my opinion of it one iota.

Anonymous said...

I have burning bushes all my life and nhave never had a wild onegrow anywhere other than where I planted them. They are NOT overused. Taht is a matter of opinion. period.

Jocelyn from the Garden Corner said...

I think these are very pretty bushes, but I didn't realize that even the "compact" ones got so large! I'd prefer filling that space with a variety of smaller flowers instead. Just my two cents!

Anonymous said...

I just purchased seven burning bushes to make a hedge. The label said 10 x 10, meaning max height and width. If I want a privacy hedge, how many feet apart should I plant these bushes? The location is part sun.

Trisha said...

We have several interesting shrubs grouped under our bay window, including a dwarf burning bush. I trim it twice a year and it looks great! Only about 3 feet high. Our next door neighbors have 3 dwarf burning bushes spread out and there's are only a few feet high and they don't really trim them often. They are all at least 10 years old. I love mine. We are in Utah. Maybe it depends on where you live??

Trisha said...

I LOVE my Dwarf Burning bush! I have it in a grouping of other shrubs that turn yellow and purple so it's really beautiful in the Fall. Mine is only 3 ft. tall or so. It could be smaller if I wanted it to be. I prune it once or twice a year. My neighbors have 3 Dwarfs and there's are the same size as mine and they rarely trim theirs. Ours and theirs are at least 10 years old. I would like to get a couple more for a different area. I love Fall color! I live in Utah--maybe it grows differently here?? It's not over used if you like it:)

Anonymous said...

Today i found black eggs on the under side of tips of my dwarf burning bush. picked the tips off, but don't have a clue what these eggs are. Plus the made the ends of the stems curl around the eggs. please help me