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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. .
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.