Ultimate Guide to Growing Burning Bush

An attractive ornamental plant, burning bush is a deciduous shrub native to Asia. Popular in North American landscapes for its dense multi-stemmed appearance, the common name of these slow growing shrubs is inspired by the red flame-like appearance of its foliage during the fall months.

While the main attraction of the burning bush (Euonymus alatus) can be seen in the fall, the shrub does provide interest at other times of the year. As well as masses of green, pointed foliage which hangs delicately from the plant’s arching stems, in late spring small, yellow-green flowers emerge. In the fall these are replaced by decorative red-orange berries.

Also known as winged Euonymus after the ridges that arise on new growth before disappearing to create a smooth stem as the plant matures, burning bush is a great choice if you want to introduce soft hedging or privacy to an area. It is also a good structural choice, helping to define and mould a space. If you want to add a burning bush to your garden, this is your complete guide.

1 Burning bush is an attractive shrub
Burning bush is an attractive shrub that provides interest throughout the year.

Warning, in some areas the burning bush is classed as an invasive species despite its slow growth habit. This is because the plant is easily spread by birds or other wildlife eating its berries and depositing the seeds over a wide area. The root system also spreads widely underground, sending up suckers which, if allowed to, develop into new plants. Some states, including New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts have banned burning bush. Check with your local extension office before planting.

Good burning bush alternatives include:

  • Blueberry
  • Chokeberry, particularly Dwarf cultivars
  • Dogwoods, such as the red twig or silky cultivars.

Different Burning Bush Varieties

As we have already noted, these are slow growing plants adding no more than 1 ft of growth each year. When fully grown they reach a height of between 15 and 20 ft tall, with a mature spread of between 8 and 12 ft wide.

These are hardy, adaptable shrubs. Best suited to USDA Zones 4 to 8 they tolerate most conditions well.

Monstrous is a reliable, large variety. Reaching a mature height of 15 to 20 ft it has pronounced ridges on its stems. A slightly smaller option is Apterus. A smoothed stemmed cultivar, it grows to about 6 ft.

For gardeners where space is at a premium, or container gardeners there are also compact cultivars such as the Dwarf Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus Compactus).  Growing to between 6 and 8 ft in height, smaller still if planted in a container, it requires similar growing conditions to larger plants. Other compact cultivars include, Pipsqueak, an attractive, reliable cultivar that rarely exceeds 5 ft and Rudy Haag. This is one of the smallest burning bush cultivars. Growing to a height of between 3 and 5 ft it is an ideal option for smaller spaces.

When selecting a cultivar take into account the planting position. Tall varieties shouldn’t be planted directly beneath overhead cables. Also the larger the variety the further the root system spreads. Don’t plant too closely to fences, walls and underground structures such as pipes.

Plants are typically sold as small specimens in pots. When selecting your specimen, don’t be afraid to inspect the foliage and stems. Try to select the healthiest cultivar possible. Burning bush can also be sold as bare root cultivars, ready for planting.

Where to Plant

Selecting a favorable position makes ongoing care a lot easier. Burning bush shrubs thrive in full sun positions. They also grow in partial shade, but the foliage may not become as intensely red in the fall. Ideally, the plants should receive between 6 and 8 hours of light every day.

In warmer climates a little afternoon shade, to protect the plants from the intense heat of the afternoon sun, is recommended.

2 Light encourages red foliage
Plant in a light position to encourage the foliage to redden in the fall. 

The soil should be well draining and, ideally slightly acidic. While there are ways to make your soil more acidic, the plants grow just as well in neutral soil profiles. Avoid planting in poorly draining or boggy soil.

How to Plant

Planting a burning bush is best done in either the fall or early spring, before new growth starts to emerge. Many gardeners prefer to plant hardy shrubs in the fall because it gives the roots time to establish themselves before new growth starts to form.

Don’t worry if growth seems slow in the first year after planting. Plants like to establish a healthy root system before starting to flourish in a new position.

Dig a hole in the soil large enough to hold the entire root ball. Plants growing in containers require a larger hole than bare root specimens.

If the plant is in a pot, remove it from the container and gently tease the roots apart. Place the plant in the centre of the hole, the top of the root system should sit just below soil level. You may need to remove or add more soil to get the position of the plant right. When you are happy, carefully backfill the hole. Try not to sink the plant too much as you plant.

When the hole is about half full, water well. Allow the water to fully drain away before continuing to fill the hole. Apply a layer of mulch around the plants to suppress weed growth and keep roots a little cooler.

3 Mulch the soil
After planting, mulch the soil. This helps to keep roots cool and also helps the soil to retain moisture. 

Planting in Containers

Select a pot large enough to hold around 3 years of healthy growth. This means planting in a pot that is at least 6 inches wider than the root ball. The pot should also have drainage holes in the bottom. Fill the pot with well draining potting compost. To further improve drainage work some pumice or perlite into the soil before planting.

Place some porous landscape fabric at the bottom of the pot. This prevents the drainage holes from getting clogged up with soil. Gravel or crocks can also be used. If you are using both gravel and material, lay the material over the gravel. Add a small layer of potting soil to the bottom of the pot.

Place the plant in the pot, the top of the root ball should sit half an inch to an inch below the rim of the pot. When the plant is correctly positioned, backfill the pot with more potting soil. Water well, until water starts to drain from the drainage holes. As the water drains and the soil settles you may need to add more soil. Finally, add a thin layer of mulch such as wood chips of sphagnum moss to help conserve moisture.

How to Care for Burning Bush

Once planted, burning bush is pleasingly easy to care for. You will, however, need to take measures to control the spread of the plants.

Planting in containers is one, easy way to control the spread of the root system. As roots spread, suckers are produced. These should be pruned away quickly, before they develop into larger plants.

Another way to control the spread is to hand pick berries from the shrub as they form. Seal the berries in a bag before disposing of them. Do not place them on the compost heap.

Water

Once established these are drought tolerant shrubs. Burning bush struggles if the soil is wet for too long. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings.

When watering the shrubs, try to keep the foliage as dry as possible. Use a hose to water only the soil and roots. Keeping the foliage dry helps to prevent fungal problems.

4 Keep foliage dry when watering
When watering, try to keep the foliage as dry as possible. 

Fertilizer

Unlike other ornamental shrubs, such as rose bushes, these are not heavy feeding plants.

Young shrubs appreciate a regular dose of liquid fertilizer. Try to feed 3 or 4 times during the growing season, this is from mid spring to mid summer.

In early spring, as new growth starts to emerge, apply half a cup of tree and shrub fertilizer, such as Miracle Gro Shake ‘N’ Feed Slow Release Plant Food, per plant. Sprinkle the fertilizer evenly on the ground, covering the entire root area. Rake the fertilizer in and water thoroughly. This helps the fertilizer to reach the roots.

Pruning

Prune in the spring to rejuvenate leggy plants, or those that have overgrown their space. This is best done before new growth emerges. Use a clean, sharp pair of clippers to cut down to 1 to 3 inches above ground. This may seem drastic but don’t worry, new growth quickly emerges.

Light pruning to shape the plant can be done in either late winter or early spring, when the plant is dormant. When pruning, have a shape in mind and prune to that shape. Regularly stand back and assess the shape of the plant. Try to keep the plant balanced and even. Remember to look at it from all angles.

Transplanting Shrubs

Transplanting is best done in the fall. Large shrubs may require at least two people to safely transplant them.

To remove the burning bush, cut the branches down to the ground. Drive a shovel straight down in a circle around the plant, roughly halfway between the drip line and trunk. The circle should be at least 1 ft from the trunk. This cuts the roots, enabling you to lift a manageable root ball in one go.

Once you have severed the roots, use the shovel to lift the plant out of the ground and onto a large burlap sheet. Placing the shrub on a sheet makes it easier to transplant to its new position.

Check the soil for any remaining roots before backfilling the hole with dirt. All the roots should be removed if you don’t want a new burning bush to reappear in that position later that spring.  Continue to check the area for at least one growing season for any suckers. Any suckers that do appear will have to be completely dug out to prevent them developing into a new shrub.

Plant the burning bush in its new position, as described above.

Common Burning Bush Problems

Planted in a favorable position, these are largely trouble free plants.

Regularly check the foliage for signs of infestation. Spider mites can cause browning or dying off. Upon closer inspection you will notice fine webs in the branch joints. Blast away spider mites with a hose. You can also apply insecticidal soap or horticultural oil to the foliage.

Brown foliage can also be a sign of insufficient water. Amend your watering routine to prevent the soil from drying out too much. A soil moisture meter, such as the Gouevn Soil Moisture Meter is an easy to use way to monitor the moisture content of your soil. This is a useful little gadget if you struggle to know how often to water your plants.

As well as spider mites, scale insects can sometimes infect plants. Treat infestations with neem oil or insecticidal soap.

5 Check foliage for problems
Regularly check the foliage for infestation or disease. 

Euonymus scale are small, sap sucking insects. Heavy infestations can cause yellow mottling to appear on foliage. If left untreated it can cause foliage to drop from the plants or die back. Encouraging beneficial insects, such as lady bugs to the garden, can help to deter pests such as Euonymus scale. A bug hotel is an easy way to encourage beneficial insects to the garden. Pesticides can also be used to prevent infestations.

Powdery mildew is a fungal disease caused by poor air circulation, over fertilization or planting in an overly shady position. It causes a fluffy grey coating to form on foliage. Cut away infected branches and leaves and dispose of them. If powdery mildew is an ongoing problem, protect new growth as it develops with an appropriate fungicide.

One of the main attractions of the burning bush is the foliage which turns red in the fall. Young plants may not turn red. Burning bush shrubs tend to get redder as they mature. Leaves not turning red on established plants is usually caused by a lack of light. These shrubs require at least 6 hours of light a day for leaves to turn red.

How to Propagate Burning Bush

You can propagate burning bush plants either by taking seeds or cuttings.

Take softwood cuttings from new growth. The stems are mature enough to be cut if the tip snaps in two when bent in half. Take your cuttings in the morning when the plant is well hydrated. Water well the night before to help this.

Make the cut an inch below the second set of leaves. Pinch off bottom leaves and cut the top leaves in half. This ensures that they don’t touch the soil when planted. Dip the lower part of the cutting in a rooting hormone. Make sure that you cover the nodes of the removed leaves, it is from these nodes that new roots emerge.

Plant the cuttings in pots filled with a free draining, potting soil roughly one and a half to two and a half inches deep. To make your own rooting mix, combine an even amount of perlite and potting mix. Place cuttings in a propagator, the temperature should average between 55 and 64 ℉. Keep the soil moist.

When roots form and new growth emerges, remove from the propagator and grow on in a light position. This takes between 3 to 5 weeks.

Harden off the cuttings before transplanting into their final position.

Growing from Seed

Growing burning bush from seed is a slower process than taking cuttings. Harvest seeds from ripe berries in the fall. Clean any flesh or pulp from the seeds before planting in a jar filled with sand.

Place the jar in the fridge, at a temperature of 40 ℉ for 3 months. This recreates the winter chill that is necessary for the seeds to break their dormancy and germinate.

In the summer plant the seeds in their final position, when the soil is warm enough, or pots filled with well draining potting soil. Keep the soil evenly moist. It takes around 8 weeks for the seeds to germinate. Following germination care for the young seedlings as you would a larger plant.

6 Harvest berries before they ripen

Harvest berries as they ripen before potting on. 

Burning bush is toxic to humans, cats and dogs. However birds and other small wildlife can eat the berries without suffering any ill effects. For everyone else, almost all parts of the shrub contain toxic components. While you can wear gloves when handling the plant, it is only dangerous if ingested. Then burning bush can cause nausea, vomiting, chills, abdominal pain in humans. In animals vomiting, drooling, diarrhea, coughing, weakness and dilated pupils are some of the more common reactions.

Attractive and easy to care for the burning bush is a great way to introduce soft structure to a garden. As other plants fade in the fall its bright red leaves introduce color and interest to otherwise dull gardens.

Burning Bush 1 Burning Bush 2

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