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How to Grow and Care for Burning Bush (Eunymus alatus)

Burning bush with vibrant red leaves

Burning Bush, also known as the spindle tree, is a vibrant and easy-to-care-for shrub that is indigenous to northeastern Asia and central China.

This hardy shrub, prized for its bright red fall color and dark green summer leaves, has become a beloved fixture in many North American gardens since its introduction in the mid-1800s.

Contrary to its name, the burning bush does not actually bloom; instead, it thrives in the full sun, captivating the landscape with its dazzling fall foliage.

Being a deciduous plant, the seeds of the Burning Bush are dispersed in early spring, giving rise to numerous seedlings. This shrub can easily transform your garden into a dense thicket, filled with larger plants if well-cultivated.

Not just an ornamental, but the burning bush also serves as a habitat for a variety of wildlife, particularly through its thickets and corky-winged twigs.

However, just like any other plant, taking care of a burning bush requires a keen understanding of its optimal conditions and potential threats. Despite being a native plant of northeastern Asia and central China, the burning bush can thrive in other parts of the world, including most regions of North America and parts of the Midwest.

Paying particular attention to its stems and leaves, and adopting the right gardening strategies such as the use of herbicides like glyphosate and triclopyr for cut stump treatment can go a long way in ensuring the plant’s well-being.

It’s important to note that euonymus alatus is native to Asia, but it has spread so rapidly in North America that its use as a landscape plant is now strongly discouraged in many areas, particularly the Midwest and Northeast.

It is a difficult plant to control since it is easily propagated by birds and other animals that consume the berries and “deposit” the seeds far and wide.

Some states have prohibited the sale of this plant due to its invasive nature of crowding out native species.

As a master gardener, I’ll share everything you need to know about burning bush and the precautions you need to take.

Botanical Name: Euonymus alatus

Common Name: Burning bush, winged spindle tree

Family: Celastraceae

Plant Type: Shrub

Hardiness Zones: 4 – 8 (USDA)

Sun Exposure: Full, partial sun

Soil Type: Moist but well-drained

Soil pH: Acidic, neutral, alkaline soil

Bloom Time: Spring

Flower Color: Yellow

Native Area: Asia

Burning Bush Plant Care

Grown popularly as a native plant in North America and Northeastern Asia, the Burning Bush is an attractive shrub that illuminates the landscape with its bright red fall foliage.

Thriving in full sun, it has thick, dark green leaves in summer and a dense thicket of corky wings on mature twigs that enhance its visual appeal. For this shrub to bloom magnificently, proper care is essential.

Burning bush shrubs in a park

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

In early spring, sparingly apply herbicides such as Glyphosate and Triclopyr to control the rapid reproduction of seedlings and maintain the balance between this species and larger plants.

Pruning stumps and applying herbicides directly on the cut stump can further aid in ensuring its healthy growth without impacting its habitat and the overall aesthetic of your garden.

Light

The burning bush thrives under full sun to partial shade. However, for the most vibrant fall color, these shrubs need direct, full sun. Bright red fall foliage, an identifying feature of the burning bush, becomes more prominent and intense with greater exposure to sunlight.

This plant is remarkably resilient, and while it can survive in somewhat shady conditions, its colorful autumn display is noticeably less striking. The burning bush’s adaptability to a range of light conditions has contributed to its popularity across North America, particularly in the Midwest landscapes.

Soil

The burning bush or spindle tree thrives in a wide range of soil conditions from dry sandy soils to moist, well-drained clay soils. This hardy shrub prefers a slightly acidic to neutral pH but can tolerate slightly alkalinity as well.

As a master gardener, I recommend amending the planting area with organic matter to improve drainage if you have heavy clay soil.

While the burning bush can withstand dry conditions, consistent moisture will ensure its dark green leaves and bright red fall foliage maintain a lush appearance.

Regularly check the soil during peak summer months, especially in full sun habitats, as they can dry out quickly.

Burning bush planted in the lawn

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Water

The burning bush prefers consistent, regular hydration to maintain its robust dark green foliage. Rooted firmly in its natural habitat in dense thickets, this shrub performs best when it receives approximately one inch of water per week, particularly during dry spells.

While seedlings may require more frequent watering, mature bushes have established, drought-tolerant roots. However, maintaining proper hydration is vital to encourage a vivid fall color, lighting up the landscape with hues of bright red.

Over-watering can lead to root rot, so ensure the soil is well-draining rather than waterlogged. As such, interlinking this watering schedule with phases of full sun can contribute to the successful growth of your burning bush.

Temperature and Humidity

The burning bush requires a moderate to cool climate for optimal growth, often thriving in the temperature range that is typical of North America and the Midwest. This hardy shrub is quite tolerant and can endure temperatures down to -30°F.

However, its most vibrant fall color is observable when the temperatures are crisp, but not freezing. As for humidity, the burning bush is flexible and can survive in both humid and dry areas.

Its versatility in various climactic conditions makes it a popular choice in many landscapes across different regions.

Closeup of burning bush with red leaves along with other trees

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Fertilizer

The burning bush has reasonable fertilizer requirements. Hailing from central China and northeastern Asia, this plant can flourish deeply in a dense thicket environment. In early spring, an application of slow-release granular fertilizer is often enough to sustain these shrubs, undergoing a burst bloom, through the growing season.

Despite their resilience, they appreciate nutrient-rich soil and consistent feeding, especially when planted in poor soil regions like those often found in the Midwest. Remember that over-fertilization can lead to excessive growth promoting a thick, dense habitat, threatening native plant species.

Therefore, reasonable control in feeding and spacing out the application can prevent the burning bush from becoming a threat to local ecosystems.

Pruning

The burning bush is an attractive shrub that requires minimal pruning. Pruning is best done in early spring, before the emergence of new leaf growth. Considered a dense thicket of bright red fall color, the plant thrives in full sun and lends a vibrant touch to any landscape.

While larger plants may need some trimming to maintain a desired shape, the removal of old twigs, dead branches and stumps is important to promote new bloom.

Pruning the shrub down to a cut stump can rejuvenating it, inspiring fresh new growth and maintaining its vibrant fall foliage.

Closeup on the red leaves of a burning bush

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Overwintering

The burning bush embodies the quintessential fall foliage, morphing from dark green leaves to bright red during the chillier months. This resilient shrub is capable of enduring the harsh Midwest winters that encompass much of North America.

Requiring full sun for the optimal fall color, these larger plants are capable of surviving in partial shade too, often inviting a dense thicket of seedlings beneath. Its corky wings that feature on twigs are another highly adaptive attribute that aids this plant through winter.

However, they should be sheltered from extreme wind to prevent potential damage to the plant’s structure. It’s important to remember that an early spring cleanup is beneficial for the bush’s health, helping it remain a gorgeous part of your landscape all year round.

Types of Burning Bush

  • Compactus: This semi-dwarf cultivar grows to 9 to 10 feet tall, making it a more manageable landscape plant with many uses.
Burning bush Compactus in a park

Compactus – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

  • Rudy Haag: This dwarf cultivar grows to reach only 3 to 5 feet tall, making it the ideal choice for a modest landscape.
Euonymus alatus 'Rudy Haag' red leaves

Rudy Haag – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

  • Pipsqueak: Pipsqueak, as its name suggests, is a smaller variety of the burning bush. Its bright red fall color and compact size make it a perfect choice for small gardens or landscapes.
  • Apterus: This type grows to around 6 feet tall and has smooth stems instead of the distinctive ridges found on most types.
Closeup on the leaves of Euonymus alatus f. apterus

Apterus – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

  • Monstrosus: This variety’s stems have very noticeable ridges and can grow to be 15 to 20 feet tall when mature.

How to Plant Burning Bush From Seed

Step 1: Sourcing the Seeds

In the early spring, small bright red berries appear, containing the burning bush seeds. You can collect these seeds or buy them from your local nursery.

Step 2: Preparing the Seeds

Once you have the seeds, an important step in propagating these larger plants is to prepare the seeds correctly.

Some suggest keeping the seeds in a moist environment for about three months to help them stratify or overcome dormancy, which aids in their future growth.

Seeds of compactus burning bush

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Step 3: Planting the Seeds

Plant the seedlings in a region with full sun exposure or partial shade. They prefer a well-drained soil that can retain moisture but is not water-logged.

Plant the seeds about 0.25 inches deep in the soil. This will give the seeds the ideal environment to grow.

Step 4: Caring for the New Growth

Once the seedlings sprout, they will develop stems featuring dark green leaves and characteristic corky wings on the twigs.

These features are the first signs of growth for the burning bush plant and signals the right time to move them to their permanent habitat, ideally within a landscape that emulates their native thicket-like conditions.

Step 5: Maturing Process

The burning bush shrub is a durable and adaptable plant, and when fully grown, turns into a dense thicket.

Once the shrubs begin to mature, its bright red fall foliage stands out in stark contrast against its dark green leaf, making it a favorite for those who want a splash of color in their landscape.

Two growing burning bush in the garden

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

How to Propagate the Burning Bush

Step 1: Choose the Optimal Time

The burning bush propagates well from seeds and softwood cuttings. Early spring is the perfect time to collect and sow seedlings as they begin their growth period, enhancing the chances of successful propagation.

However, if you opt for cuttings, late spring through summer would be ideal—as the plant is fully leafed out, providing ample plant material to establish new plants.

Step 2: Preparing the Cuttings

Cut healthy, disease-free stems of around 4-6 inches long from the burning bush. Ensure each stem has several leaves intact.

To increase the chances of rooting, apply a rooting hormone to the base of the cutting before planting. Remove any leaves from the bottom of the stem to prevent moisture loss.

Step 3: Planting the Cuttings

Plant the stem cuttings in a mix of peat moss and vermiculite or sand for fast draining soil. Remember that avoiding waterlogged soil is key to preventing root rot.

Once the cuttings are potted, place them in a bright, warm spot where they receive full sun For the first few weeks, keep the soil slightly moist but not waterlogged.

Step 4: Seedling and Sapling Care

Nurture the seedlings or cuttings under optimal conditions, and once they establish a strong root system, you can transplant them to a permanent location in your landscape.

The burning bush favors slightly acidic, well-drained soils, and although it tolerates shade, it achieves its best fall color in full sun. Regular pruning encourages more dense thicket and vibrant fall colors, enhancing your garden’s visual appeal in autumn.

Burning bush with red leaves growing

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Step 5: Contain the Spread

The burning bush, a classic ornamental shrub in the Midwest since the mid-1800s, and across North America, has a tendency to spread into thickets, crowding out native plant species.

Cutting the larger plants, herbicide application (glyphosate or triclopyr) to the stumps, and repeat treatments might be required to control its spread.

A cut stump treatment methodology can help address stump sprouts and suckers that arise from the root system of the plant, conserving the habitat from too-dense growth.

How to Pot or Re-Pot a Burning Bush

Step 1: Selecting the Proper Container and Soil

Choose a pot that can manage the growth of your burning bush as it forms a dense thicket with corky wings on its twigs and can grow into quite a size over time.

Any container must feature an effective drainage system to maintain robust health for the plant. The soil should be a well-draining mixture that also retains moisture, as this shrub does not tolerate drought well.

Step 2: Planting Your Burning Bush

To pot your burning bush, place it center in the pot, making sure that the root ball is level with the top of the container. Lightly backfill with the soil and tap gently to remove air pockets.

It is essential not to bury the stem of your plant deeper than it was in its original pot or natural habitat; too much soil might cause the stem to rot.

Step 3: Post-Planting Care

Just after planting, water the pot thoroughly. Place the container in a location that receives full sun to part shade; however, for optimum fall color, the more sun, the better.

The bright red color of the leaves trend towards a pinkish red when grown in the shade. Keep an eye out for unwanted thickets sprouting around the pot in early spring.

A huge blooming burning bush with vibrant red leaves

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Step 4: Maintaining Your Burning Bush

Pruning should primarily be done in the early spring before bloom to maintain the desired shape and size.

Furthermore, if the plant has become too large, you can resort to cut stump control by cutting the stem within a few inches of the ground and treating the stumps with herbicides like glyphosate or triclopyr to halt regrowth.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases for Burning Bush

Aphids

Aphids on a plant

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

A common pest for many shrubs including the burning bush, aphids are small green or black insects that feast on the sap from the stems and leaves.

They reproduce quickly, often leading to infestations that can stress the plant and lead to yellowing leaves. Midwestern gardeners especially should be vigilant for these pests, as they can also transmit diseases to your plants.

Scale Insects

Scale insects on a plant

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Scale insects are another common pest that can plague your burning bush. Appearing as small, stationary bumps on stems, twigs, and leaves, they suck sap from the plant, leading to wilting and discoloring of foliage.

They are more prevalent in North America and are particularly fond of the dense thickets the burning bush tend to create.

Euonymus Scale

Euonymus scale on green leaf

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Specifically for burning bushes the Euonymus scale is a common disease. This insect attacks the stem and leaves leading to loss of the vibrant fall color. These pests look like tiny white lines or dots on the leaf underside or on the stem.

Powdery Mildew

Green leaf with powdery mildew

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

A prevalent disease for larger plants and seedlings, Powdery Mildew is a fungal infection that causes a white dusty appearance on leaves, stems, and buds of the bush.

In severe cases, it can even lead to defoliation. Most effective control is using fungicides in the early spring, as new foliage is most susceptible.

Viral Diseases

Various viral diseases can also affect the burning bush, leading to symptoms like leaf curling, discoloring, and stunting of the plant’s growth.

While there aren’t specific treatments for viral infections, overall plant health can be maintained to reduce the impact, such as ensuring full sun exposure and careful pruning of infected areas.

Common Plant Problems and Solutions for Burning Bush

Brown Tips on Leaves

The dark green leaves of the burning bush, native to Northeastern Asia and Central China and commonly seen in North America’s Midwest landscape, can sometimes develop brown tips.

This is usually due to insufficient watering or, ironically, receiving too much full sun. To rectify this issue, ensure that the shrub is adequately watered, especially in periods of prolonged drought or extreme heat.

Yellowing Leaves

Yellow leaves can be a symptom of various factors, most notably overwatering or poor drainage. In early spring, the bright red blooms of the burning bush start as green seedlings, but if waterlogged, these could turn yellow in color.

It’s critical to check that your burning bush is planted in well-draining soil and refrain from overwatering.

Infestation of Twigs

The thickets, corky wings, and dense thicket habitat provided by a burning bush can become a haven for pests that lay eggs on the shrub’s stem and twigs.

In such cases, it’s beneficial to apply herbicides, such as glyphosate or triclopyr, to protect the plant. Larger plants may require a cut stump treatment to ensure the chemical fully penetrates.

Reduced Fall Foliage Color

The burning bush, also known as the spindle tree, is adored for its breathtaking fall color, wherein its leaf undergoes a transition to bright red hues. Sometimes, these plants in the landscape may display reduced fall foliage.

This is often due to a lack of full sun exposure, as they demand ample light to produce the stunning fall foliage. If you spot this issue, consider transplanting the bush to a sunnier location or pruning overhead trees that may be casting shade.

Reduced fall foliage color of burning bush

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Regrowth from Stumps

Introduced in the mid-1800s, the burning bush has a tendency to grow back from stumps, forming dense thickets that crowd out other species. This is a larger problem if trying to control its spread or reintroduce native plant species.

In such circumstances, herbicides, particularly those containing triclopyr, should be applied directly to the cut stump to inhibit further growth.

 

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