Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
September, 2011
Regional Report

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Its blaze of fall color is lovely, but unfortunately burning bush spreads invasively in our region and is no longer a good choice for our landscapes.

A Burning Issue

When I worked at a local garden center in the past, at this time of year we always placed the burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) on offer in the sales yard so that they could easily be seen from the road by passing motorists. As soon as the leaves of these shrubs began to change to their vivid red fall hue, we knew we'd get a steady stream of customers, lured in by the eye-catching color, who'd decided that they just had to have some of that autumnal finery in their own landscapes.

But sadly, here in New England, we've been burned by the burning bush. Throughout our region, this shrub has jumped its cultivated bounds and earned a spot on states' invasive species lists by spreading too readily into fields, open woods, and mature forests, as its seeds are disseminated widely by wildlife species in their droppings.

Just what makes some plants invasive? To start with, they are non-native, or exotic, species, ones that haven't evolved as part of the local natural ecosystem. But just because a plant is not native doesn't mean it will become an invasive pest. Those that do are ones that can aggressively out-compete native plants, monopolizing resources like light, nutrients, moisture, and space. They may disrupt soil composition, change water tables, or offer less food value to wildlife than natives. Plants that cause economic or human health harm also make the list.

While some plants that have made the invasive list have been considered weeds since they arrived on our shores, others are plants that, like the burning bush, were originally considered desirable -- until they went rogue.

Even in those states, like Vermont, that haven't yet issued a final edict against the sale of burning bush (although such a prohibition is planned for this year), many nurseries have voluntarily agreed to stop selling it. So hopefully, new plantings won't be adding to the existing problem.

But what should you do if you already have burning bush in your landscape (as I did in my own garden)? The best course of action is to remove the existing plant, especially if there are woods and fields nearby to which it can spread.

And what can you plant instead? Fortunately, there are a number of great shrubs that can fill the niche that burning bush once occupied and provide not only some similar outstanding fall color, but more interest in other seasons.

Red chokeberry Aronia arbutifolia This deciduous shrub is native to the eastern U.S. and does best in moist, well-drained soil. Fragrant white flowers in spring, red berries in summer, and red fall foliage contribute lots of seasonal interest. The cultivar 'Brilliantissima' is more floriferous than the species and has spectacular red fall color. Growing 6-8 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide, it can be a little leggy and looks best with a skirt of lower perennials or grasses.

Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) Although not found in the wild in our region, this southeastern U.S. native grows well as far north as zone 5, even the warmer parts of zone 4. In spring it sports ivory-colored, bottlebrush-shaped flowers; in fall, its blue-green leaves change to eye-catching hues of red, orange, and yellow. The cultivar 'Mt. Airy' has especially consistent outstanding color and is listed as getting 6 feet tall and wide. (I have grown this for many years and it has never exceeded about 4 feet tall and wide in my Zone 4 climate.)

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) From its small white spring flowers to its blue berries and shiny dark green leaves in summer, bright red fall color, and red or yellow winter stems, this North American native will add something to the landscape in every season -- and give you delicious edible fruit to boot! Provide full sun and moist, acid, well-drained soil for best growth. There are many cultivars to choose from; most grow 4-6 feet tall and wide.

Witherod viburnum (Viburnum cassinoides) Unfortunately, another invader, the viburnum leaf beetle, has made growing some members of the viburnum clan difficult in our region in the last decade. But fortunately witherod viburnum is one that is more resistant to this pest. Creamy white flowers in early summer give way to berries that change from green to pink, then red, blue, and finally black by early fall. The vibrant orange-red, crimson, and purple fall foliage adds to the show. This native grows about 5-6 feet tall and wide.

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