Fiery Fall Foliage

Fiery Fall Foliage

Let’s Plant Red-leaved Native Shrubs instead of the Invasive Burning Bush

ranch house w: burning bush

In the late 50’s-60’s, Compact Burning Bush (Euonymous alatus compactus) was introduced to the landscape industry and was soon installed on the corner of every newly built ranch house in the Northeast and Midwest, including ours.   While it does have stunning fall foliage, there is little else to recommend it.  Its flowers and fruit are minuscule and have no ornamental value, whatsoever.  It will grow 10‘ tall and around and is considered compact only in relation to the species burning bush (Eponymous alatus), which grows 15-20’ tall and around.  It is native to northeastern Asia to central China.

Unfortunately, birds drop the seeds into nearby forest preserves  and it is now considered invasive.  It is, however, still available in commerce, but please avoid it.

Fortunately, there are many native shrubs and small trees that not only provide vibrant color, but also have attractive flowers and fruit that attract native birds, bees, and butterflies.

fall serviceberry golden

Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.), an elegant small tree to 25’,  is a good choice for a corner of the house.  It’s horizontal branching pattern tie it to the ground whether it’s a contemporary house or …


serviceberry on gertrude

…a traditional house.  There are several species of Amelanchier and many cultivars, but all have flaming fall color, not to mention snow white spring flowers and tasty, red June berries.  Plant lavender Drummond Aster underneath and nearby in the shade for a colorful combination.

savanna panorama

Black Haw (Viburnum prunifolium) is another small tree that has blazing  redfall foliage.  It has a stiff horizontal branching pattern similar to that of a hawthorn; in addition, stiff, pointed, opposite twigs line the branches that give the appearance of thorns, hence the name.  Creamy white, flat-topped cymes flower prettily in June, that produce berries in fall.  In order to berry, however, there must be two or more trees.  it will grow 12-15‘ tall and 8-12’ wide.  Plant it at the corner of  a building or next to a gate or an arch, or in a promontory of a shrubbery border or a perennial garden as a focal point.  It is underplanted here with contrasting lavender Aromatic Aster and white Heath Aster.

black haw bramches

The stiff, pointed twigs of Black Haw resemble the thorns of hawthorn.

American Cranberry

American Highbush Cranberry  ‘(Viburnum trilobum) has it all.  White pinwheel flowers in June, followed by colorful red fall berries that hang on all winter, and what we’re observing now, stunning red fall foliage.  It grows 8-12’ tall and 6-8’ wide.  It is found in woodlands in Wisconsin, but not in Illinois.  It’s difficult to find in the nursery trade, as well; it’s easily confused with the commonly found European Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus), which is considered a weed.  It likes well-drained moist soil, in sun or partial shade.  I had read at one time that it grew in full shade and had it installed in shady situations for clients, twice–neither grouping has ever flowered.  Makes an excellent informal hedge or privacy screen.  Smooth Blue Aster makes a good companion–it, too, will grow in full or partial sun.

black Chokeberry

Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)  is yet another fiery foliaged shrub.   Note the lustrous purple-black berries nestled within the leaves.  The species will grow 6‘ tall and 4’ around, colonizing into  a lavish display.  Native to bogs, it will also grow in ordinary garden soil in full to partial sun.  Arrange in a fence corner or a curved bed, for instance, with clumps of New England Aster nearby for a dazzling autumn picture.

hazelnut leaves

American Hazelnut   (Corylus americana) is my favorite shrub. I had never even heard of it until I became interested in native plants.  I’ve mentioned its early spring catkins in February and March, notable when nothing else is in bloom, but in fall it explodes in color–scarlet, claret, apricot, topaz, copper– all at the same time, that is unmatched by any other woody plant.  It becomes 8-10’ tall and around and will sometimes colonize.   I have never seen it in the wild, but Dick Young says it is common on fencerows, trailsides, and woodland edges.  In the home garden, it makes a superb informal hedge. Underplant it with Zigzag Goldenrod and Short’s Aster.

Hazelnut shrub


wild gooseberry

I chose this Wild Gooseberry  (Ribes missouriense) at a Wild Ones plant exchange, not really knowing what it was.  I’m thrilled  with it, especially in the fall–you can see why.  It is the first shrub to leaf out in spring–early April.  It’s also one of the first shrubs to bloom; its hanging, cigar-shaped blossoms appear a little later in April, lasting into May.  These thorny, bushy shrubs grow 5’ tall and around.  In the home garden it will grow in part shade to full sun.  Seldom available in commerce, it is common in woodlands and trailsides.

wild geranium leaves fall

Plant drifts of Wild Geranium nearby.  It’s palmate basal leaves turn to scarlet in the fall, resembling and repeating both the shape and color of the leaves of the Wild Gooseberry.

sedge oct

And, most importantly, underplant all your trees and shrubs with sedges that are crucial to maintaining soil moisture in savanna and woodland.

Any one of these shrubs will be a better choice than a Dwarf Burning Bush. All these have showy flowers or catkins, followed by berries or nuts, which attract insects, butterflies, bees, or critters.  While some colonize, none are invasive.

I’ll follow up next week with golden leaves–equally beautiful.


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