Winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus), sometimes known as “burning bush” because of its brilliant fall foliage color, has long been recognized as an aggressive invader of northeastern woodlands, where it crowds out native vegetation, creating areas inhospitable to most native wildlife. Birds do eat its fruits, but that only compounds the threat of this shrub, as the birds afterward spread the seeds far and wide.
To Illustrate this serious problem, take a walk in the woods this autumn, and you’ll find large areas blazing red with the leaves of this invasive shrub — and little other undergrowth. Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, to their credit, have banned the importation and sale of this botanical pest. Connecticut, however, bowing to pressure from the nursery industry, has not. New York has just listed winged euonymus as “regulated,” which means that you may buy it, but you aren’t supposed to introduce it knowingly into the wild, which is a toothless prohibition as the invasion of wild areas by this shrub typically arises from seeds spread by birds from garden specimens.
This, says Sarah Middeleer, a landscape designer and native plants enthusiast based in western Connecticut, is just one, albeit glaring, example of a widespread problem. Exotic plants, those of foreign origin, deliver far less benefit to native wildlife, in particular our insects and pollinators, yet they continue to be the default selections of too many gardeners. The problem, as Sarah sees it, is two-fold. In part it derives from habit: gardeners tend to plant species with which they are familiar, and even now those are mostly exotics.
The second source of the problem is related. Nurseries, responding no doubt to the traditional preference of their customers for exotic species, tend to stock mostly those. As a result, gardeners wishing to convert to natives in their planting won’t find them at most garden centers.
A resolution of this situation, Middeleer believes, won’t come until gardeners demand a change. If they go to their local garden centers and nurseries specifically requesting native plants, those businesses will change what they offer. Sarah, herself, is attacking the problem of familiarity. She has been developing lists of native plants that offer similar aesthetics to the familiar and popular exotic species that have been the standard nursery stock in trade.
I became familiar with these efforts of Middeleer thanks to my membership in the Ecological Landscape Alliance (https://www.ecolandscaping.org). Among the many benefits it offers to members, this organization sends out a monthly online newsletter. So far, it has published two of Middeleer’s lists, one focused on native substitutes for popular exotic compact shrubs, and another on substitutes for larger exotic shrubs and small trees.
I mention this because the Ecological Landscape Alliance allows the public access to past newsletters at its website (listed above). You’ll find Middeleer's list of small shrub substitutes at ecolandscaping.org/11/developing-healthy-landscapes/biodiversity/small-native-shrubs-to-replace-commonly-used-exotics, and the list of larger shrubs and small trees at ecolandscaping.org/04/designing-ecological-landscapes/native-plants/notable-natives-large-shrubs-and-small-trees. Both articles are gold mines of inspiration. For example, she proposes chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa or A arbutifolia), blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), or maple-leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) instead of burning bush. These native substitutes offer a brilliant fall foliage color similar to that of burning bush, but also nourish native insects and birds and coexist comfortably with other native vegetation, rather than crowding it out like the burning bush.
While you are at the Ecological Landscape Alliance website, I suggest you click on the button to join, as it offers many benefits to novice and expert gardeners alike. And if you are interested in learning more about Middeleer and her lists of native substitutes, you can log on to the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast at thomaschristophergardens.com/podcasts/native-replacements-for-popular-exotic-shrubs.