Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
My husband was definitely lacking a green thumb when we met. His thumb has gradually taken on deeper and deeper shades of green, especially since we purchased our home. He works very hard to learn the names of plants in our yard, sometimes even learning the Latin as well as the common name.
One of the first shrubs we planted was Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety', which has small green leaved edged in white. My husband asked what it was. "A Euonymus," I replied. "An anonymous?" he asked. "No, Euonymus," I insisted. "Oh, a hippopotamus!" he joked. To this day we refer to that shrub as an "anonymus".
A couple of weeks ago my husband noticed some bright red shrubs in a neighbor's yard. He asked what they were, and when I said "Euonymus," he thought I was wrong; pointing out that it looked nothing like the green and white shrub in our yard. But there are many different species of Euonymus—this one was Euonymus alatus, better known as "burning bush" which turns a beautiful bright red in the fall.
A common question I hear each fall is "Why doesn't my burning bush turning red?" First of all, not every Euonymus is a burning bush. There are so many species and cultivars, you may not have what you think you have. Most cultivars of E. alatus have long corky "wings" along the stems. If your shrub is indeed a burning bush, it needs an unprotected, full sun location to produce good fall color.
It's worth mentioning that Euonymus alatus can be invasive in the right location, including some locations in Illinois. Along with other Euonymus species, Euonymus alatus is native mostly to east Asia. E. alatus, burning bush, was introduced to the United States in the 1860's for use as an ornamental shrub. By most accounts it behaves perfectly when it is planted in an urban garden, but it tends to forget its manners and become more of a bully when planted near wooded areas. In some locations burning bush is replacing native shrubs and upsetting the natural understory in forests.
The problem is that burning bush tends to produce tons of seeds, making control nearly impossible in wooded areas. There are some seedless or nearly seedless cultivars available, such as 'Rudy Haag' and 'Odom' (Little Moses™). That said some gardeners report that even though their bush produces a healthy crop of seeds, they have never seen a seedling. Maybe the birds are distributing the seeds far and wide, or perhaps the seeds are not viable.
There is a Euonymus native to the Midwestern U.S. that is sometimes commonly referred to as a burning bush. Euonymus atropurpureus, also known as the Eastern Wahoo, is classified as a shrub, but many would call it a small tree, as it can reach heights of twenty feet. It is grown primarily for its bright red fruits and fall color, which may vary from yellow to pink and red.
Generally speaking, Euonymus are tough plants that can survive a wide range of landscape conditions except for wet, poorly drained soils. A common pest encountered is Euonymus scale. Euonymus scale are insects with armor-like shells or covers that protect their soft bodies. The female covers are dark brown and look like oyster shells. The male covers are much smaller, appearing white and sliver-like. Most males are typically found on the underside of leaves, most females along stems.
Evidence of euonymus scale first appears as yellow spots on the upper surfaces of leaves. Variegated cultivars of Euonymus may exhibit a pinkish color on the upper surface of leaves when first infested. Left untreated, the plant will become engulfed in scale and lose its leaves. Mated females will overwinter on plants to reinfest the following year. Repeated infestations will eventually kill a plant.
Euonymus scale can be controlled by planting resistant species. E. alatus 'Compactus', E. fortunei 'Acutus' and E. kiautschovicus reportedly show some resistance. Variegated species of Euonymus are more susceptible than solid green.
Chemical control for euonymus scale is most effective when the infestation is still small. Plants totally engulfed in scale should be discarded. Because of their armor-like coverings, euonymus scale insects are protected from insecticides reaching their soft bodies. They are best controlled when they are at the tiny immature "crawler" stage that lacks the protective shell. This period is from late June through July. There are many insecticides labeled for use on Euonymus scale. Read the labels and use accordingly. For more specific information, contact your local Extension office. Repeat applications of insecticides may be necessary as new eggs continue to hatch.
Some argue that Euonymus is way too common in landscapes. A friend of mine asked why in the world I planted E. fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety'—she hates the plant, thinks it's boring and overused. I told her I like it, that's why I planted it. Whether a plant is "fashionable" is not the deciding factor for my garden. Granted, there are legitimate reasons to not plant a particular plant that go beyond personal preference. But in my opinion, part of the joy of gardening is planting what YOU like, not what a magazine, TV show, or other media outlet says you should plant.