Plant This, Not That

As of this past weekend, most of the leaves are off the trees and the scarlet foliage of Burning Bush or Winged Euonymous (Euonymous alatus) is easily seen. It’s a dangerous beauty. Now you can see clearly how prevalent this shrub is—and it is spreading. Winged Euonymous dominates many roadsides. If you delight in the brilliant red of this shrub, you might think this is a good thing. In reality, there are problems with this plant and other non-native, invasive species on the Connecticut Invasive Species List . Birds eat its oblong, scarlet berries and spread the seeds. The plants grow and choke out native plants that wildlife have evolved to eat, thereby threatening local ecosystems.

Burning Bush or Winged Euonymous (Euonymous alatus) is a commonly planted but very invasive shrub. Notice the wings along the green and brown branches. Photo by Steve Law, CC BY-SA 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The fruit of many invasives is high in carbohydrates, whereas berries from native shrubs and trees also have the fats and proteins that wildlife, including birds, need to survive migration or get through the winter. It would be as if you ate just candy bars instead of a varied diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and meat. Like humans, birds don’t always eat what’s good for them now that these “new” plants are on the scene.

The leaves of most invasives can’t be digested by caterpillars, the primary food that birds feed their young during the nesting season. It can take up to 9,000 caterpillars for parent Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapilus ) to successfully raise a brood.

What can you do? There are many native alternatives important to our ecosystem even in our yards and neighborhoods. Instead of Burning Bush, plant native Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) or Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). Lowbush Blueberry only grows a few feet high and Highbush Bluebery tops out at 6 feet (2 meters). Both have lovely scarlet fall foliage. Try beating the birds to the delicious berries!

The foliage of Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) is just as lovely as that of Burning Bush . The plants requires bumble bees to “buzz pollinate” its flowers. Photo by Andy Brand.

Chokeberries (Aronia spp.) are shrubs with beautiful orange to red leaves in the fall. There are two species native to the eastern United States: Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) with red berries and Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) with black berries. They both reach a maximum of 8 feet (2.5 meters) high, although there are varieties in the garden trade that are smaller.

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is another great alternative to Burning Bush. It’s tart, red berries are eaten by birds later in the winter after they sweeten. The berries are also great for jams. Photo by Earth Tones Native Plant Nursery.

Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is another often planted invasive shrub that then escapes into surrounding woodlands. Its oblong, scarlet berries are also eaten and spread by birds. I have seen some forests where Japanese Barberry has taken over the entire understory. Research shows that the White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), a vector for Lyme disease, likes to hide under the thick cover it provides, so the shrub can even adversely affect human health.

Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) can take over the entire understory of woodland tracts, choking out other plants. Its leaves emerge early in the spring, blocking needed light for native wildflowers. White-footed Mice (Peromyscus leucopus), a vector for Lyme Disease, like to hide in its thick foliage. Photo by Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut,, CC BY 3.0 US <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

What to plant instead? A great alternative is Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), which is a deciduous holly. It’s a native of wetland edges, but is very adaptable to a variety of soils in part to full sun. Its round, scarlet fruits hanging on through the winter contrast nicely with its bare branches. One of my personal highpoints was once watching a flock of bluebirds flying in and feeding on its fruit during a raging snowstorm—a parade of red, white, and blue.

In the wild, Winterberry’ (Ilex verticillata) is found in damp soils along wetland and stream edges, but is adaptable to many soils in the garden. Photo by Richard Webb, Self-employed horticulurist,, CC BY 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) and its cousin Russian Olive (Eleagnus angustifolia) originally were planted by highway departments and conservationists to help hold soils and attract wildlife, without realizing that these species would spread out of control. A much better choice is the native American Hazelnut (Corylus americana). Its edible nuts are so loved by squirrels, foxes, Northern Bobwhite, Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, and woodpeckers that it is hard to save some for yourself! The shrub is very tolerant of a variety of soil and light conditions.

In 1959, this pamphlet was published by the USDA to encourage planting Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) for wildlife, not realizing how invasive the shrub is. Woops! Public domain.
Autumn Olive was once widely planted by highway departments along roadsides and interstates. Photo by College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences, University of Delaware.
American Hazelnut’s fruits are edible for a host of wildlife, including us. Notice the leaves eaten by insects, which is a good thing. Caterpillars feed on the leaves, and in turn supply food for birds. Photo by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service,, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

How about getting rid of invasive Asiatic Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) vines, beloved of home decorators at this time of year? It might look pretty on your mantle, but this plant is a harmful invasive in the wild. I am gradually getting rid of bittersweet in my yard. The vines are so prolific and grow so fast that in a few years they can climb a tree and eventually pull it down. Replace it with our native Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina). This shrub grows 3 feet (1 meter) high and spreads through rhizomes to form a good-sized patch.

The berries of Asiatic Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) have been used in holiday wreaths, with the fruits later disposed of in the backyard. This is a real problem as the vines can grow to take over the yard! Photo by Cbaile19, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The native Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina) is a much better alternative to Asiatic Bittersweet. The shrub’s pink flowers attract a variety of native bees and butterflies. Photo by bobistraveling, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is another common invasive vine. A much better alternative is the native Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Its tubular red or orange flowers, which hummingbirds adore, are beautiful along a fence or trellis. .

Another member on the CT Invasive Species list is Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). It can crowd out native plants and climb up fences and trees. Photo by Vinayaraj, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.
Unlike Japanese Honeysuckle, native Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is more restrained. Its tubular red flowers are a magnet for Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds (Archilocus colubris).. Photo by Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Fall is a good time to plant. There is still time before the ground freezes, so grab a shovel and put in plants that satisfy our need for beauty, yet serve the native ecosystem well.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

4 thoughts on “Plant This, Not That

  1. Hi Jim, Great issue of BYBD! It is so important to get the word out to everyone, and this covers some of the biggest offenders.

    Is it possible for us to include it as an attachment in an email newsletter to the members of ESA, or in a separate blast? I have copied Barb on this, as she may have ideas on this.

    Thanks so much Cheryl



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