The one invasive plant I really miss is burning bush, also called winged euonymus or if you want to be technical, euonymus alatus.

For other ornamental plants on invasive-plant lists I wonder what the attraction was in the first place. Barberry gets huge and scratches your arms if you get within a foot of it. Bittersweet and multiflora roses strangle trees and shrubs and look straggly most of the year. Autumn olive and honeysuckle are just blobs in the landscape.

I can still understand the initial attraction of the Norway maple, including the purple-leaved ‘Crimson King.’ At first sight it is big, strong and handsome. But after you get to know it, the Norway maple becomes a mean bully, prone to abuse of your house and yard. Its roots spread wide and rob nutrition from everything nearby, and its dense leaves block almost all light from anything that attempts to grow below it.

Some people expand the list of invasives to include rugosa roses, but the low-maintenance roses that have come to market over the past 15 years, including Knockout and Oso Easy, provide attractive alternatives. If you want to look at some examples, stop by the rose circle at Deering Oaks park in Portland, which now features a selection of Earth-Kind roses.

The burning bush, however, filled an important niche in many Maine gardens. Although almost invisible in spring and early summer, by about mid-August it begins turning red. With colors ranging from bright red to deep maroon, it practically glows – and earns its name. Burning bush comes in a range of sizes, the original species growing up to 15 feet tall, some dwarf varieties topping out at 5 feet.

I even like the look of burning bush before the leaves come out. Its branches are unique, with long green ridges – the wings in the term “winged euonymus.”


At one time, my wife and I had three burning bushes on our property, two compact varieties and one of the original species. I’ve since cut all three down, although one continues to sprout occasionally. Once I knew the damage the plant could cause, I could no longer in good conscience let them remain.

The trouble is burning bush spreads rapidly and easily outcompetes native species, which means that native birds and animals are deprived of the food and shelter they need to thrive.

No native animals eat burning bush, which is one reason it has been a popular, easy-care plant. It grows in any type of soil except bogs and in conditions ranging from full sun to deep shade. In some New England forests, burning bush has taken over the understory.

Burning bush produces many seeds, and they sprout easily. Native birds eat the seeds, though they provide little nutrition for them, then spread them widely through their droppings.

For all of these reasons, I urge anyone who has a burning bush to cut it down or pull it out.

Once your burning bush is gone, what other plants will provide the same attractive, fall color? A number of native options exist.


The first that comes to mind is high-bush blueberry. Low-bush blueberries turn the barrens of Washington County a gorgeous red in the fall, and the related high-bush blueberries also turn red. They have delicate white flowers in the spring and delicious fruit in the summer.

Not all varieties of blueberry get red in the same way. I planted 10 varieties this spring, and when I checked a couple of weeks ago only three – St. Cloud, Elizabeth and Jersey – had turned a nice red. This is a one-year sample and early in the season, so ask at the nursery which ones turn reddest.

Viburnums have excellent fall foliage, and many are native. Be sure to choose varieties that are resistant to the viburnum leaf beetle. Probably the best choice is the witherod viburnum, but others that should do include arrowwood, ‘Mohican,’ nannyberry and ‘Winterthur.’ Non-native viburnums also have excellent foliage, and are not invasive, so you can give them a try, too.

Oakleaf hydrangea turns a bright maroon to dark orange-tinged red in the fall, but while a natural-born citizen of the United States, it is not native to Maine and is Zone 5, so is not hardy in inland Maine. It is also a nice change from the Endless Summer series of hydrangeas.

Aronia or chokeberry is a native plant that turns a deep red, and it produces fruit high in antioxidants. You won’t want to eat it raw, but people make pies and bars and more with it.

Itea or sweetspire grows only 3 feet tall, has fragrant flower spikes in mid-summer, and turns a bright red.


If you really want to stick with burning bush, try the non-invasive option – Euonymus alatus ‘Rudy Haag.’

‘Rudy Haag’ was first discovered at Bernheim Arboretum in Kentucky in the 1940s, according to Jeff O’Donal of O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham. It produces few seeds – about 10 from three mature plants over three years – and when those seeds were tested for another three years, they did not sprout.

‘Rudy Haag’ is slower growing and smaller than the original species. Full grown, it reaches about 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide, with a shape similar to a mugo pine.

Maine does not yet have a law banning the sale of invasive ornamental plants, as many of its New England neighbors do – so it is still legal to sell any invasive plants here. Most local nurseries have stopped selling them, however.

The state is working on such a law, and O’Donal said he will lobby hard to let the non-invasive variety remain legal.

While I miss burning bush, our garden is gradually going native so I will probably skip ‘Rudy Haag.’ I’m counting on the blueberries, for both color and food.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

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