University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
ALTERNATIVES TO THE BURNING BUSH
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
University of Vermont
Burning bush is an invasive plant you
should not put in landscapes, and for which there are many good
alternatives. This is a common
ornamental plant whose seeds are spread by birds and wildlife to natural areas
where they invade, crowding out native plants.
There are several alternative plants you can use instead of burning
bush, or to replace it.
Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is
an attractive shrub, often overused in landscapes, noted and named for its
brilliant red foliage in the fall. It is
deciduous, as are its alternatives, that is they lose their leaves in
winter. It is easily sheared into
hedges, or seen planted in masses. Left
unpruned, it can reach 10 to 14 feet high and wide.
Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium
corymbosum) is a good native alternative to the burning bush, not quite as
tall but also with red fall color on several selections. Its many burgundy, young twiggy stems give it
winter interest too. This plant of course has edible berries for people and
wildlife. Even though it is
self-pollinating, you may get more fruit from using at least two
selections. It can tolerate occasionally
There are many cultivars (cultivated
variety) available of the highbush blueberry, varying some in hardiness and
fall leaf color. Several common ones
such as ‘Spartan’ (less hardy) and ‘Bluejay’ have orange or yellow-orange fall
color. ‘Patriot’ is a hardy, lower
selection from the University
of Maine with orange-red
fall color. Good choices for red fall
color are the hardy ‘Friendship’,
getting only 2 to 3 feet high and wide; ‘Tophat’, getting only 1 to 2 feet high
and 2 to 3 feet wide (hardy to USDA zone 5); and the hardy ‘Toro’ (USDA zone
4), getting 4 to 6 feet high and wide.
Fothergilla has species that can be used both for foundation plantings (F.gardenii)
and for naturalistic settings (F. major), reaching 3 to 4 feet
high, or 6 to 10 feet high, respectively.
Their habit is dense and rounded.
Both have fall leaves mixed in colors of red, yellow, and orange for an
attractive effect. The lightly fragrant
flowers (like honey) in spring are shaped like
bottlebrushes. Fothergilla is hardy in the warmer parts of
the north (USDA zones 5 and warmer).
When looking for these shrubs, consider the lower cultivar ‘Appalachia’,
or the taller ‘Mount
Airy’. Both tend to “sucker”, or send up shoots on
Enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus) has good red fall color on plants that
can get 6 to 12 feet high, and a bit less wide, giving it an upright
appearance. The yellowish-pink, hanging
bell-shaped flowers have red veins, and are attractive in spring. The bright red young stems during the summer
usually persist through the winter, giving it year-round appeal. Enkianthus is hardy in the warmer parts of
the north (USDA zones 5 and warmer). It
combines well with rhododendrons which like similar conditions. Another feature is that this shrub is
somewhat deer resistant.
Red Chokeberry (Aronia
arbutifolia) is a slow grower, eventually reaching 6 to 10 feet high, and
half that wide. This native plant has an
open and upright habit in landscapes, but with suckers will form a broad
mound. Perennials and ornamental grasses
in front will help hide the bare lower trunks.
Once established, this plant will tolerate drought.
The species of red chokeberry has red to
reddish purple leaves in fall, but the cultivar ‘Brilliantissima’ has scarlet
fall color. Clusters of white flowers in
spring produce red fruit in the fall. This plant will tolerate occasionally wet
soils, and is hardy in most of the north (USDA zone 4 and warmer). A couple choice and related cultivars to
consider are the lower ‘Autumn Magic’ with black fruit, and ‘Viking’ with
purple fruits high in vitamins.
Another alternative to the burning bush
sometimes recommended is the American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus
var. americanum, often seen as V.
trilobum). This native species, and its more brightly fall colored
cultivars such as ‘Alfredo’ and ‘Redwing’ can be used where the viburnum leaf
beetle isn’t a problem. Once
established, this shrub tolerates drought.
Our native winterberry (Ilex
provides brilliant red fall color from its berries on female
plants. There is a difference in fruit
color retention among cultivars. Best in
trials at the University of Vermont were ‘Jolly
Red’, ‘Maryland Beauty’, ‘Winter Red’,
and the hybrid ‘Sparkleberry’. Keep in mind if
planting these that you’ll
need a male plant or two for pollination.
The species of winterberry is often seen in natural areas in wet soils,
although this plant tolerates dry soils as well, only grows less
All these plants perform best in full sun to part shade, and moist but
well-drained soils unless noted.
Enkianthus and fothergilla also prefer acidic soils (lower pH of
5.5-6.5), with highbush blueberry preferring quite acid soils (pH 4.0 to
5.0). They are carefree, and low
maintenance alternatives to the burning bush, providing similar fall color and
often many additional benefits and attractions.
Return to Perry's Perennial