Burning bush shrubs can provide vibrant yet troublesome color in your backyard

A vivid color pops in autumn from many Midwestern gardens: the scarlet of burning bush (Euonymus alatus).

“It’s a particularly showy red,” said Michelle Beloskur, coordinator of the Midwest Invasive Plant Network, based at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

Unfortunately, that vibrant red also blazes through many woodlands and other natural areas in the Midwest, where the shrub can carpet the ground and crowd out the native plants that are natural to those ecosystems.

Burning bush is highly invasive. Its berries, carried from gardens by birds, take root in forests, prairies and other habitats, where they spread so easily they outcompete the native wildflowers, shrubs and trees.

It is one of many invasive plants that have escaped from gardens to wreak havoc in natural ecosystems. Others include buckthorn, Japanese honeysuckle, barberry and purple loosestrife. Such plants are a major challenge in forest preserves, national parks and other natural areas, including the prairie and woodland restorations at the Arboretum.

Most of these invaders come from gardens — imported from Asia, Europe and other places to ornament local landscapes. That puts gardeners on the front lines in the fight against them.

The invasive plant network aims to educate homeowners and help them have beautiful gardens that are less of a threat to natural areas. Its website (mipn.org) has extensive lists of perennials, shrubs and trees that are considered invasive and should be avoided. Many of them are common garden plants.

Gardeners often misunderstand the term “invasive.” Beloskur noted that it doesn’t just mean “weedy” or “aggressive.” Invasive plants are defined as those that are not native and cause harm to the environment, such as local ecosystems; to the economy; or to human health.

An invasive plant usually reproduces in a way that makes it spread easily. It also is a threat because it has been displaced by people from its native ecosystem into one where it is not native and has no natural enemies that could control its growth. “Not all nonnative plants are invasive,” Beloskur said, “but all invasive plants are nonnative.”

Invasive plants don’t always cause problems in the gardens where they are planted. “You may not actually see it spreading in your own backyard, but it’s causing problems somewhere else,” she said. In the case of burning bush, buckthorn and barberry, for example, “birds are eating the berries and the berries are deposited in other places, often natural areas.”

If your yard includes invasive plants such as these shrubs, consider removing them and replacing them with native or noninvasive species. “If you choose the right native plant, it can still be beautiful,” Beloskur said. “It can still have great fall color and beautiful flowers. But it won’t have the negative aspects.”

Find recommendations for alternatives to invasive species at woodyinvasives.org, or consult the Arboretum’s Plant Clinic at mortonarb.org/plant-clinic. The Midwest Invasive Plant Network also has a mobile app, Landscape Alternatives, available for iOS or Android. It’s designed to be handy when assessing the plants in your yard or when shopping at a nursery.

“You don’t have to do a complete yard overhaul in one season,” Beloskur said. “We urge people to gradually make changes to their landscapes to remove invasives and add more native plants.”

If you’re establishing a home garden, she said, “think about incorporating as many native plants as possible.” Native plants, including trees and shrubs, support native wildlife, such as songbirds and butterflies.

Nonnative plants, such as roses and lilacs, can still have a place in your garden as long as they are not invasive, she said. But it is important to research your plants to identify which invasive species to remove or avoid.

This year, let brilliant autumn colors be a signal to rethink your landscape as you plan for the years ahead.

For tree and plant advice, contact the Plant Clinic at The Morton Arboretum (630-719-2424, mortonarb.org/plant-clinic or plantclinic@mortonarb.org). Beth Botts is a staff writer at the Arboretum.