Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus)
By Jill Maes
Community Conservation Coordinator
EarthWays Center, Missouri Botanical Garden
This installment of Species Spotlight goes to Euonymus alatus, commonly known as burning bush. Euonymus alatus, a member of the Celastraceae family, translates to “true name” and “winged.” Burning bush is an invasive shrub in 21 states, including Missouri. E. alatus is a popular landscaping shrub that has bright red leaves in the fall. It can grow to be 20 feet tall if not trimmed back each year.
In autumn, this bright red bush is hard to miss. It’s apparent throughout the region, along the edges of parking lots and driveways. Burning bush is native to forests in Japan, Korea, China, and parts of Russia. E. alatus has opposite, simple leaves that are one to three inches wide. Like the Latin translation, the twigs have wings and the bark tends to be gray with ridges along the stems.
Burning bush flowers from May to June and the flowers are an unremarkable yellowish-green. Then E. alatus will produce fruits in September to October. A mature burning bush can produce a large amount of seeds each year. Burning bush spreads from birds eating the fruit, then dispersing the seeds after digestion. When this plant is allowed to grow, it can become a large thicket that out-competes beneficial native plants.
Like other invasive plants in Missouri, burning bush greatly reduces the biodiversity of areas where it spreads. If you have it in your yard, please consider replacing it with a Missouri native bush. Plants that are a great replacement include eastern wahoo, strawberry bush, black chokeberry, ninebark, fragrant and smooth sumacs, just to name a few.
E. alatus can be controlled through chemical and manual control methods. If a bush is too big to dig out, use an herbicide in the cut-stump method in fall or a spring foliar application as an effective option for killing this invasive shrub. Then you will want to continually cut the re-sprouts and hand pull any of the small seedlings that come up.
Some states have implemented invasive plant bans. Delaware passed a bill in 2021 that bans the sale or trade of 37 invasive plants including burning bush. The Secretary of Agriculture can add more species to that list as they see fit. At this time in Missouri, it’s up to us to understand, identify and remove invasive species from our properties—and encourage awareness through conversations with neighbors, plant vendors, and our local officials.