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Beware of Burning Bushes or Flaming Foliage for Fall

Euonymus alatus Compactus, aka Burning Bush, is a very important plant in my life because it brings my wife into the garden. She is not into horticulture. Her contact with the garden is restricted to commenting, from a distance, when she sees a plant that she likes or when something just does not look right. The Burning Bush, when it is aflame with fall color, is the only plant I grow that will physically draw her into the garden.

It’s easy to set the garden ablaze in autumn with fiery color and it’s never too early to plan because some shrubs get sold out early, at the height of the planting season. Now, while there are no other gardening distractions, is a good time to do the research, record the names of the chosen plants, and prepare to pounce when the nurseries re-open for business in the spring.

In Montreal, Euonymus alatus grows problem-free. However, in some parts of the USA, this plant is forbidden because it is invasive, especially in the eastern woodlands of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. If you live in an area where Euonymus alatus has been out-lawed, here are 6 alternative shrubs, listed alphabetically, that will ignite the autumn garden.


Aronia arbutifolia: The autumn foliage of this plant is bold red, like an intense shiny raspberry-crimson. It grows 6 to 8 feet tall in full sun to part shade in Zones 4 to 9. Although it will tolerate some drought and dry soil, it prefers a well-drained loamy, sandy or clay soil. This shrub spreads 3 to 6 feet by suckering, but is easily contained.


Enkianthus perulatus has the most spectacular scarlet fall color. It grows slowly to 4 feet in height, spreads from 4 to 6 feet wide and is comfortable in Zones 6a to 9b, in sun to part shade. It is a slow growing shrub and maintains its ground level foliage even when mature. This shrub tolerates clay soil and urban growing conditions.


Fothergilla gardenii: The mother plant, the cultivar Jane Platt and the cultivar Blue Shadow are hardy in zones 4 to 9 while the Blue Mist and Suzanne varieties are hardy from zones 5 to 8.  All grow to an approximate height and width of 3 feet x 3 feet. While this is a sun to part-shade shrub, plants that grow in sun to dappled sun will supply the richest autumn color. Some years, fall coloration will appear red and sometimes it will look like a blend of red, purple, orange and yellow.


Itea virginica, Henry’s Garnet: The color of this shrub varies according to location, from clear maroon to bright purple-red and orange. An adaptable plant, it will grow in wet, dry, clay soil, and in median strips along urban byways. This shrub slowly reaches 6 feet tall and wide in zones 5 to 9, in sun or part shade. Its cousin, Little Henry, is a dwarf version that grows to a height of 2 or 3 feet. Its compact shape makes it adaptable for container gardening.


Photo by William Cullin for finegardening.comVaccinium. All of the hybridized cultivars of the Blueberry shrub have stunning red autumn foliage with tints of orange and purple. This plant needs a well-drained, loose soil that contains a lot of organic matter. The “Bluecrop” variety, for example, grows 5 feet tall and wide in Zones 4 to 8, in sun and part shade. The best fall color will occur in full sun. The height and width of the other blueberry cultivars [there are many] will vary in size by a differential of 1 or 2 feet in both directions. All are ablaze in autumn and enjoy the same hardiness zones and growing conditions.


Disanthus cercidifolius grows 10 feet tall and wide in Zones 5 to 8, in sun or part shade. In autumn, its heart-shaped leaves begin turning colors of purple, followed by gold and orange. Just before they fall, the leaves turn the showiest shade of red. This shrub needs the same growing conditions as Rhododendrons, namely acidic, fertile, rich, moist, but well-drained soil. During summer drought, it needs to be well watered and in winter, protected from wind. This is one of the few shrubs that will turn red in part shade.

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Reader Comments (2)

Great post. I too look foreard to a burst of colour in the fall garden. Euonymous and I have a love/hate relationship, mainly because of a bad case of snobbism that I readily admit to. I have been looking for E. sachalinensis for sometime now - fabulous specimen with an open, somewhat vase shaped growth habit..... I keep looking in the meantime.

Enkianthus was a new addition this year. E. campanulatus 'Showy Lanterns' has for the most resembled a dwarf version of some of its counterparts. I can harly wait for its fall display... and Fothergilla....... sublime to say the very least. F.g 'Blue Mist' has stayed relatively diminutive for me - supposed to top out at 2m, and sadly I haven't witnessed the bright red, orange and purples..... On that note, are you familiar with Disanthus cercidifolius? Methinks you might want to search one out! I think your wife might appreciate it as well.

January 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTeza

Do you know if the disanthus cercidifolius is deer-resistant/deer-tolerant? Thank you!

October 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJP

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