Non-Native Invasive Species

Winged euonymus

Euonymus alata

Winged euonymus

Winged euonymus
Photo: James H. Miller, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Plants that become invasive usually have a lot of help elbowing out others, and sometimes it's the plant industry. Growers and suppliers all over the country persist in distributing plants proven to be threats to native biodiversity.

One of the worst menaces is the hugely popular winged euonymus or burning bush, a mainstay of the home landscape, of commercial plantings, of parks and highway median strips - and now an awful weed of wild areas and abandoned agricultural lands in many counties in New York and New England and points south. But there's good news: it hasn't yet reached invasive weed status in Bennington County, and if we all act now, perhaps it won't. (Sorry, Windsor County. It's too late for you, already a hot spot of invasion.)

Winged euonymus

Winged euonymus
Photo: Leslie J. Merhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org

If you don't know this shrub, you soon might. Already specimens are starting to exhibit one of its most attractive features - brilliantly scarlet fall foliage. After leaf fall, its huge yields of red berries will become apparent, as well as interesting corky-winged twigs. These three gorgeous characteristics, a symmetrical and contained habit of growth, lack of important pests, and the plant's enormous adaptability (sun or shade, acid or alkaline soils, hardy to growing zone 4), account for its enormous popularity. Michael A. Dirr, author and director of the University of Georgia Botanical Garden, estimates that hundreds of thousands of plants of this species are sold in the U.S. each year.

Making birds very, very happy indeed! Though people bring the plant into our cultivated landscapes, birds, which love the fruits, are responsible for spreading it to wild areas. And once established in the wild, it can take over - forming dense thickets under which nothing else will grow. Its shade tolerance makes it a special threat - just one more of many - to woodlands and forests.

Winged euonymus

Winged euonymus
Photo: Leslie J. Merhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org

Most home owners will not want to remove their specimen shrubs. (You might try - as I do with a beautiful specimen on our rented property - stripping the fruits each autumn and destroying them. It is hugely labor intensive!) But all of us should be vigilant about seedlings sprouting around our properties. (Pull them!) And none of us should ever purchase this species, ever again! Native shrubs such as spicebush, highbush blueberry and chokeberry offer excellent fall color and food for birds at no threat to the natural environment. (Plant them!)