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Blog Post

Burning Bush: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Updated: Jan 26

Got burning bush (Euonymus Alatus) in your yard? Let’s talk!


Perfection isn't the goal


Our goal here at Blue Stem Natives is not perfection and that includes not guilting our customers into having yards that are perfectly 100% native. Perfection, after all, is the enemy of good. Customers often come in to talk about native plants and tell us sheepishly that they have non-native plants in their yards. Hey, we do too! Peonies remind me of my wedding, tulips give some nice, early spring color, and purple coneflowers (not quite native to New England) remind me of my mom. All of these plants I have planted for my own enjoyment; they are lovely and also bring me joy. And that’s a good thing. None of these species are problematic, other than that they can take up the room of native species. Although, as my poor neighbors can attest, my small yard is chock-a-block full of native plants, too. 


(Purple coneflower is also very ecologically beneficial...so much so, that we carry it at Blue Stem.)


The problem is that a small portion of non-native plants become invasive, forming thickets or dense stands, pressuring out native plants, and therefore reducing biodiversity.


Cue: start “The Imperial March” music. Enter: burning bush (nerdy Star Wars reference if you aren't in the know).


History


Burning bush is native to eastern Asia where, as a balanced part of an ecosystem that evolved over time, it is "well behaved". It was brought to the United States in the 1860s as an ornamental plant and was well received. It’s important to acknowledge that the invasive species that are/were brought here intentionally were brought with a purpose. Beauty, erosion control…screening the nudist neighbors. But sometimes the bad ends up far outweighing the good. Kudzu, planted in the south for erosion control now has the moniker “The Plant that Ate the South!”. Visiting relatives in Georgia, it’s shocking to see sweeping forests of kudzu with the shape of woods underneath. In the 1970s, people realized that burning bush was starting to become a problem.


The Good


So what’s good about burning bush? The vibrant fall color. That’s pretty much it. Although its vibrance is enough to warrant the love, the rest of the year they are kind of ‘eh. I think another reason they are wildly popular is that they are easily recognizable. People buy, plant, talk about, and recommend what they are familiar with. We can assume you have read conversations on Facebook; people asking for plant recommendations usually leads to commenters, with good intention, listing the same 20 plants. Over and over, day in and day out. Non-native: hostas, rose of Sharon, vinca…and burning bush. That's what people know, and traditional garden centers feed into that.


The Bad and the Ugly


Occasionally, non-native plants fall into the category of causing environmental and economic harm, and that can take us years to realize. Are you thinking of any species currently not an official problem but has the makings of a terror? Rose of Sharon I am looking at you. There are a few reasons why people love burning bush, but there are more reasons not to love them. The state of Massachusetts now deems burning bush illegal to buy, to sell, and to trade.


Why? One burning bush grows more burning bushes...EXPONENTIALLY.


I often see burning bush conversations on social media where person after person comments, “They are not invasive in my yard". However, birds will eat the berries in your yard, fly off, and “dispose” of those berries elsewhere (if you catch my drift), woods being a favorite place. Those berries will germinate and grow new burning bushes ad infinitum. Just because you aren't seeing a problem in your yard doesn't mean they aren't causing destruction elsewhere. I can guarantee you they are. Recently, even the wonderful and experienced gardener Martha Stewart posted on Instagram that burning bush was not invasive in her woods, but Instagramers quickly pointed out that her entire understory was burning bush. Burning bush is tolerant of shade and adaptable in different soils, so it quickly outcompetes native plants in our forests. Dense thickets quickly form. Nothing else stands a chance not even the future oak and pine saplings.


The berries are not only a problem because they grow more burning bush that damage our forests. Scientists have found that the berries are not a good source of fat/energy for our birds. Native berries, preferred by birds when they can find them, have the right stuff. “The highest fat content and energy densities were found in fruits of native shrubs, ranging from 6.57 to 48.72% fat and 18.83 to 28.68 kJ/g of energy. All invasive fruits had ≤0.99% fat and ≤17.17 kJ/g of energy.”


Can you just cut the berries off and dispose of them when they form? No. Just no. Please, no. Can you commit to that for the life of the shrub and of every future shrub any missed berries will grow? No. It's just not feasible, and there are just too many great native burning bush alternatives. Burning bush can also grow from "layering". If a branch comes into contact with the ground it can root and grow a “new” shrub.


"But I reeeeeally Like Burning Bush."


Fun. I like Thin Mints, but that doesn’t mean I should sit and eat a whole sleeve of them in a sitting (don't ask me how I know this is a bad idea).


In 2005, burning bush was banned for sale/trade/planting by the state of Massachusetts. Why would the state tell us what to plant, or actually not plant in our yards? Environmental damage and lots of money down the drain. In addition to being a problem for wildlife, destroying ecosystems, wetlands, etc, dealing with invasive plant species also costs us, as U.S. taxpayers, $36.6 billion a year. Which is why we look to the experts.


Not everyone is thoroughly educated about the science of what makes a species environmentally destructive. What we see in our backyards is not necessarily what is happening in our natural areas. Which is why we have the Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory Group. MIPAG members come from research institutions, non-profits, the green industry, state and federal agencies, and also representatives of the nursery trade. Experts weigh on plants that are potentially a problem. These experts come to the table with careers such as Supervisory Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Environmental Biologist, MA Dept. of Agricultural Resources; Conservation Botanist, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program; Water Resource Scientist, Lakes & Ponds Program, MA Dept. of Conservation and Recreation. Legit.


Assessed plants are determined to either be:


Some in the traditional nursery trade work to produce "sterile cultivars" of popular invasive plants such as burning bush. Sterile cultivars...in theory...should not produce viable seed. But that is no guarantee, as plants can cross-pollinate and cause new problems. This unknown is not a solution. The article title, “Scientists thought they had created the perfect tree. But it became a nightmare.” is aptly titled as it sheds light on supposed sterile species. "Sterile" Bradford pears won't pollinate each other but they can cross pollinate with any other species in the pear family and have caused massive problems across the entire United States. Oops. Again, there are just too many great, native, alternatives to gamble on an experiment.


The Very Hungry Caterpillars

...are not found on burning bush


There are a myriad of reasons to be happy about having caterpillars on your plants. If you are a bird lover you might know that it takes 6000 to 9000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of chickadees. That is the norm for songbirds, not the exception. Caterpillars don’t really eat burning bush, and that's a bad thing! Insects are an integral part of ecosystems, and feeding birds is just one wonderful and fascinating thing about them. 


According to etymologist Doug Tallamy, 90% of insects can only eat plants that they have evolved with over eons. Those insects can be called “specialists”. The Monarch butterflies' caterpillar is our poster child for "specialist" as they can only eat milkweeds. Since insects in New England didn’t evolve with burning bush, the VAST majority can not use burning bush as food. And if you garden for wildlife with any intention at all, then that’s a bad thing. Insects are "...the fabric tethering together every freshwater and terrestrial ecosystem across the planet.” (link to Reuters article, a detailed, great read!)


Identification


Aren't sure if that vibrant-in-the-fall shrub you have is burning bush? A few characteristics:

  • Multi-stemmed

  • The stems have ridges (or "wings" which give it one of it's other common names, "winged Euonymus")

  • Leaves are elliptical shaped, dark green in the summer

  • Leaves are opposite each other on the stem

  • Brilliant red fall foliage

  • The flowers are inconspicuous, nothing showy

  • Berries are bright red-orange





How to Remove


Does the state mandate that you have to remove your established burning bushes? No.

Is this heading a not-so-subtle-hint that we want you to pull out your established burning bushes? Well, we are only passing along the information for you to decide (cough, cough...but yes…cough). 


When to remove them? Anytime. Really, when the ground has thawed is the best time but you can always get started in the winter by trimming off all the branches while they are bare.


Burning bush aren’t the easiest to remove due to their size and the fact that you need to dispose of them properly to avoid any portion re-rooting. They don’t, thankfully, have the deepest root system. Cutting down most of the branches first helps to manage easier removal of the roots with a shovel. 


When we moved into our current house we removed about 20 of them. A few of the larger burning bush (8'+) we hooked a chain up to the back of our car and pulled them out.* The smaller ones (6'-) we were able to remove with a shovel and hard work. If you have the physical capability to do so, removal with a shovel or a weed wrench works well. You may have burning bush seedlings popping for a few years but those are easy to pull out. All portions of the burning bush should be put into black plastic garbage bags to throw away or disposed of in a similar manner as to not allow any portion to re-root or allow the berries to be eaten.


*Disclaimer: please only do this with a car if you know what you are doing, you have to be careful of electrical lines, trees, structures, etc.


We prefer to avoid chemical means when possible while recognizing the difficulties of a serious infestation or the difficulty in physical limitations. You also have to be careful and follow specific protocols if you are near a wetland. Visit Mass.gov for best practices.



Native Alternatives for Great Fall Color "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." (Maya Angelou)


Does removing all of this understory reduce wildlife habitat? Yes, in so much as it removes cover for wildlife. So replace them with native shrubs that host insects, act as a cover, are lovely, and a natural part of our New England ecosystem. 


Pictured below from left to right and top to bottom:

  1. Aronia melanocarpa, black chokeberry

  2. Prunus maritima, beach plum (I don't have a photo of one in the fall but they are wonderful!)

  3. Rhus aromatica, fragrant sumac

  4. Vaccinium corymbosum, highbush blueberry

  5. Viburnum lentago, nannyberry

  6. Viburnum trilobum, American cranberrybush

  7. Nyssa sylvatica, blackgum

  8. Amelanchier canadensis, serviceberry

  9. Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Virginia creeper




BURNING

BUSH

ALTERNATIVES










Photo number

Botanical Name

Common Name

type

Full Sun

Part sun

Shade

Dry

average

Moist

Wet

height

1

black chokeberry

Shrub

X

X



X

X

X

3-6'

2

beach plum

Shrub

X



X

X



3-8'

3

fragrant sumac

Shrub

X

X

X

X

X

X


6-12'

4

highbush blueberry

Shrub

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

6-12'

5

nannyberry

Shrub

X

X



X

X


15-20'

6

American cranberrybush

Shrub

X

X



X

X

X

8-12'

7

Nyssa sylvatica

blackgum

Tree

X

X

X


X

X


30-60'

8

serviceberry

Shrub

X

X



X

X


6-20'

9

Parthenocissus quinquefolia

Virginia creeper

Vine

X

X


X

X

X


30-50'











Cheers,





Further Reading


Websites referenced:


Photo Credit

Burning bush stem close up: El Grafo

Leaf close up Franz Xaver

Highbush blueberry by Dan Wilder




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