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GREEN THOUGHTS: Burning bush, you’re fired!

Invasive burning bush shrubs like these in a woodland are no longer welcome guests. Photo by David Chinery

THE FIRE IN MY NEIGHBOR’S FRONT YARD is out: the burning bushes have dropped their leaves. An individual burning bush (Euonymus alatus) in its fiery red fall color is impressive, and a long hedgerow is spectacular, which explains the popularity of this species.

But Holy Moses, it’s a spreader! Seedlings from my neighbor’s shrubs are now sprouting in my backyard, and soon they’ll appear in my woods. At least 21 states have pronounced it an exotic invasive, and several have banned it from commerce. In New York, its “regulated” status does little to stop its sale or spread. So, let me be a “garden influencer” and ask you to plant beautiful native shrubs instead, so we can extinguish the vagrant burning bush for good.

Native Fothergilla gardenii like this make a desirable shrub. Photo by David Chinery

A top alternative choice is a native called ninebark. I grow the variety ‘Diablo,’ with foliage of deep purple in spring and summer, turning wine red in autumn. Large clusters of small white flowers appear in late spring, and the brown exfoliating bark is an added year-round bonus. Some seasons I give Diablo just a little trim, other years a bit more, this being a shrub you can shape into a variety of forms without a fuss. It likes full sun and adequate drainage but can adapt to what Mother Nature (and a casual gardener) throw at it.

The nursery industry has finally figured out ninebark is a good thing and now offers other red-leaved types, such as ‘Summer Wine,’ yellow foliage variants like ‘Amber Jubilee,’ and compact forms including ‘Little Joker.’ In comparing them to burning bush, these new ninebarks are just as easy to grow, provide showier foliage all season long and don’t invade the neighborhood with unwanted offspring.

If you can accept bright yellow fall color rather than red, summersweet clethra (Clethra alnifolia) may rock your gardening world. Native from Maine to Florida, this mound-shaped shrub will very slowly spread, but not in an aggressive way. One of mine grows under a sugar maple, a testament to its toughness, since little else wants to be there. High summer is clethra’s season, when hundreds of spikes of tiny white flowers appear, producing a powerfully sweet fragrance. A noted pollinator plant, honeybees and butterflies will thank you for planting a clethra.

If you want something zippier than white flowers, ‘Pink Spires’ features pink flower buds, while ‘Ruby Spice’ has flowers which remain rose-colored.

Fancy a Fothergilla? Those who know them certainly do. With white bottlebrush flowers in spring and fall color ranging from yellow to orange to red all on one plant, it is a shrub without a bad season. The flowers of vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) are admittedly small, but they bloom in February, the fall color is a good golden yellow, and the plant is bull terrier tough. And a native who’s fall color rivals the burning bush is red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia). Tough and adaptable, it may be a bit wild for a more refined gardens. Perhaps plant breeders can turn it into a future superstar.

To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email dhc3@cornell.edu

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