Q: I planted a burning bush about three years ago. It is now about 3 feet tall and looks quite healthy, but won’t turn red. It’s in good sun and has great drainage. Everything else in this raised bed grows nicely, so I am mystified. — Barb Nugent, Lansing, Ill.
A: If you fertilize the plants in that bed frequently, the burning bush (Euonymus alata, zones 4–8) might be slow to go dormant in the fall, growing until frost kills the leaves. The other possibility is that your plant was grown from seed and has turned out to be one of the very rare specimens that don’t color well. If you haven’t been fertilizing it, replace that plant with a named variety like ‘Compacta’ to get the brilliant pink and red tones this plant is famous for. But there is good reason to consider switching to something completely different. Burning bush has proven to be a little too ready to grow from seed. Thanks to its berries and the birds that eat them, the plant has begun spreading into woodlands, displacing natives. To help turn the tide, think about planting native shrubs that also sport brilliant red tones in the fall.
Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima,’ zones 5–9) will grow into a compact, multistemmed shrub, with delicate white flowers in the spring and glossy black berries in the fall. Many of the viburnums have glorious white spring flowers, and some color beautifully in the fall, but two natives that become brilliant red are the American cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum ‘Redwing’ [J. N. Select], zones 2–7) and the arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum ‘Red Feather,’ zones 4–9). Fothergilla is a compact, slow-growing shrub that covers itself in astonishing small white bottlebrush flowers in the spring, then finishes the season in a blaze of color. Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ (zones 5–9) has performed better than the native species at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. All three of these plants produce berries that will attract birds.
For flowers, try any cultivar of oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia, zones 5–9) with large panicles of white blooms nearly a foot long. In late autumn the foliage turns a brilliant wine red. The flower heads dry to a pleasing tan and persist into winter. Maybe the best red of all is fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-low,’ zones 3–9). The finely cut leaves make this a beautiful plant all season, but it is an absolutely gorgeous sight in the fall. The plant will stay about 6 feet tall but spreads by underground roots to form an attractive colony. It spreads slowly, however, and you may easily keep it in bounds by pruning out errant shoots with a spade.