Fall is full of shockingly brilliant colors, but the neon red of burning bush stands out from the rest like an Olympic swimmer at a high school meet. The bad news is that the burning bush that’s most commonly grown in North American gardens is Euonymus alatus, a species from China and Japan that’s invasive in much of the eastern United States. The good news? There’s a beautiful alternative that’s safe for the ecosystem: the native Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus). This shrub or small tree has dark purple flowers in the spring, bright red berries in the fall, and a fall coat with multiple shades of red and purple. This year, the Eastern wahoo was one of eight plants on the annual GreatPlants list issued by the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum.
Common name: Eastern wahoo, burning bush
Botanical name: Euonymus atropurpureus
Plant type: Deciduous shrub or small tree
Zones: 3 to 7
Height: 12 to 25 feet
• Sun: Full sun to part shade; will tolerate full shade, but color is best in full sun.
• Soil: Average, well-drained
• Moisture: Medium to moist
• Mulch: Mulch to preserve soil moisture.
• Pruning: Without pruning, Eastern wahoo will grow to be a large, spreading shrub with multiple trunks. It can also be pruned into a tree with one or many trunks.
• Fertilizer: None needed.
• By cutting or by seed.
Pests and diseases
• Vulnerable to powdery mildew and fungal spots.
• Common pests include scale insects, aphids, leaf miners, and mites. Deer and rabbits may eat the leaves and bark.
• Use Eastern wahoo as a specimen tree, in a hedge border, or as part of the understory in a woodland setting.
• Birds love the berries, but humans should avoid them, along with other parts of the plant—they can be poisonous in large quantities.
• Know the species name of the plant you’re buying, because burning bush is a common name for both E. atropurpureus (the North American native) and E. alatus, its invasive cousin.
All in the family
• Celastraceae, the bittersweet family, contains about 100 genera and about 1,300 species, most of which are native to the tropics. Euonymus is one of only two genera in this family that are common to temperate zones.
• There are about 175 species of euonymus. Some are trees, some are shrubs, and some are vines. They come from various parts of the world: Asia, Europe, North America, and Madagascar. The genus is known as “the spindles” because in England, the wood was used for making spinning-wheel spindles.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of Euonymus atropurpureus courtesy of Kristina Jensen)