We all have our favorite landscape plants, many of which have made our lists from years of tried-and-true performance in the landscape and a preferred ornamental presence.
It is always disheartening to hear that a favorite plant has problems that may warrant removal from the proverbial list. It’s even worse to learn that one of your go-to plants is now on the list of insidious, nonnative species that have become invasive in Illinois.
For me, burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is one of those plants. It’s now been well over a decade since I came to understand its invasive character, but it was a heartbreaking realization. I even had to see it for myself in the field before I would believe it.
Other than invasiveness, what’s not to love about burning bush? It has spectacular fall color, interesting twig character in winter and provides an entire growing season of medium-textured, green foliage. To top it off, it’s accepting of a wide range of site conditions and tolerates about any pruning regime a person could dream up.
However, this plant’s invasive habits far outweigh the benefits of planting it. It has the ability to invade forested ecosystems and crowd out native plants. In the right location, it can utterly dominate the understory. In the past, I’ve noticed it invading areas across southern Illinois and have seen it spreading in our area as well.
It tends to flourish in the urban-rural interface where there is enough unmowed and maintained area that seed from urban plants can become established. I live in a rural area near Monticello, and this plant is becoming a larger problem in my “neighborhood.” While burning bush cannot boast the overall shade tolerance of an invasive like bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), it is becoming a close second in my neck of the woods.
Recently, a native plant of growing landscape interest has caught my eye as a potential replacement for burning bush, from an ornamental standpoint. Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) is a native Illinois shrub in the same genus as burning bush.
As you might imagine, it has somewhat similar traits, boasting a nearly equal display of splendid fall color, along with a really interesting and showy fruit capsule. Beyond ornamental appeal, who wouldn’t love it simply for the fun name?
For decades, I have observed this plant in woodlands across Illinois, but never considered it in a landscape setting. In recent years, I have noticed it in several urban plantings and really admired its beauty along with the fond memories of the natural world it harbors. While it remains somewhat rare at nurseries, it is in cultivation and can be sourced at nurseries specializing in native plants.
Wahoo has very similar leaves and fall color to burning bush, but does get larger at maturity. It can reach up to 20 feet in height, so some classify this plant as a small tree rather than a shrub. However, it serves as a good replacement for burning bush in locations that can accommodate more height.
As an additional bit of interest, this plant has a much more showy spring flower display with tiny purplish-pink flowers that hang off of stems shortly after leaves develop.
If you are interested in seeing eastern wahoo in a landscape setting, there are several examples at Hessel Park in Champaign. They are planted at the northwest corner of the pavilion on the north end of the park, near the circle drive.
To view this plant in a more natural setting, there are several individuals growing along the Yellow Trail at Allerton Park, near Monticello. Watch for this plant along the section of the Yellow Trail that parallels the Sangamon River. It is likely present in other high-quality natural areas around central Illinois as well.
Look for this plant along stream banks or in rich bottomland forest locations, as well as along wooded slopes adjacent to bottomlands.
Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with the UI Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. This column also appears on his ‘Garden Scoop’ blog at go.illinois.edu/GardenScoopBlog.