Around here, burning bush (Euonymus alatus) has long been among the most popular of shrubs. During my years in sales at the garden center, it was among the top ten. Everyone — even non-gardeners — seemed to know about it, probably because of its showy fall color. But attitudes toward the plant have changed in recent years. It’s been declared an invasive species in regions throughout the eastern half of the U.S., and many garden centers, including ours here in Vermont, no longer sell it.
I’ve always found it to be a bit of a one-trick pony. I like the way Andrew Keys describes the shrub. He’s the author of Why Grow That When You Can Grow This? (2012, Timber Press). “Burning bush is the class clown of fall, a fire engine of foliage that sets the garden alight. It’s also an invasive species with an evil root system, smothering forest floors across the East and Midwest, its seed scattered by unwitting birds.”
Keys’ book is all about choosing better plants, and when it comes to burning bush, there’s no shortage of show-stopping, quality shrubs for fall. In his book, Keys recommends Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus, zones 3-7), which is similar to traditional burning bush, without the invasive tendencies. Other recommendations from Keys:
Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum,V. ashei and others; hardiness varies with species): “One of Americas greatest native food plants may be its most underrated ornamental.”
Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica, zones 3-9): “… as happy in Arizona as Alabama, this low-water shrub blooms, too, with dainty cream clusters in spring.”
Enkianthus: a fine substitute for burning bush. Photograph courtesy of Gardener’s Supply Company.
My favorite is enkianthus (zones 5-7), a tree-like shrub (growing up to 10′ tall) that takes on lovely fall color. You get tiny, bell-shaped flowers in spring, which dangle from the branches. Another shrub I often suggest is fothergilla (zones 5-8), which becomes an autumnal rainbow in fall, with leaves showing gold, orange and red. Bottlebrush-shaped flowers in earliest spring are a bonus. You’ll find compact, 2′ to 3′ tall varieties, as well as larger varieties that can reach 10′ tall.
I also recommend the katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum, zones 4-8), which might not work in the same situations as burning bush because this beauty is full-size tree, growing to 40′ to 60′ tall. The rounded leaves resemble those of redbud (Cercis) and turn shades of gold, orange and red in fall. The best part: Fallen leaves emit a smell that, to me, resembles the aroma of brown sugar-topped coffee cake.
More burning bush alternatives from some of the gardeners at our Williston, VT, garden center:
American cranberrybush viburnum, also known as highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum, zones 2-7), is native to the Northeast and Midwest. It prefers full sun to light shade and moist soil, and makes an excellent 8′ to 12′ tall screen or informal hedge. Smaller cultivars are available.
Mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium, zones 3-8) has showy flowers in spring followed by attractive fruit clusters. In autumn, the foliage turns reddish purple. The plant reaches a height of 3′ to 6′ and spreads by suckering.
Chokeberry (Aronia, such as Aronia melanocarpa, zones 3-8) is native to the Northeast, but has adapted to many areas, growing to 3’ to 6’ tall. Black berries are set off by showy fall foliage.