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Question of the Week

How to Prune Burning Bush

Burning bush as well as many evegreens grow much too large to be used as foundation plantings.Q. Have you published anything on the care and pruning of burning bushes? I hope so, as mine are growing much too large!

A. Come mid- to late October, it's obvious why burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is among the most popular of all deciduous landscape shrubs - it's because of its absolutely brilliant fall foliage, below left!

There are few shrubs that add as much fall color to the landscape as burning bush!Less obvious reasons for its popularity is that it's extremely easy for nurseries to propagate, grow, and ship. Once in retail garden centers, it tolerates quite a bit of abuse (too much water, not enough water, etc.), and it pretty much sells itself - it's one of the relatively few shrubs that the public, even those that are non-gardeners, know and ask for by name!

This burning bush is about two-thirds of its potential size.This is all just fine, except for one small problem - burning bush is a huge shrub when mature. In fact, the specimen at right is only about two-thirds full grown!

But you planted "dwarf" burning bush (Euonymus alatus `Compactus') along the front foundation of your home, so you're good, right?


This dwarf burning bush is all of ten feet tall and fifteen feet wide!At left is a picture of my Mom standing to the right of a mature "dwarf" burning bush a number of years ago at the Missouri Botanical Garden, in St. Louis. By the way, Mom is about five feet, five inches tall. The "dwarf" in `dwarf' burning bush, has nothing to do with the size of the plant, but rather the small size of the corky ridges along its stems in comparison to the regular burning bush (at tips of the arrows in the picture below, at right).

The dwarf in dwarf burning bush refers to the size of the corky wings along the plants stems.So, the question becomes, what can you do if the burning bush you've planted - or nine burning bushes as in the case of the relatively new home below - has grown too large for the space in which they're planted?

There are nine burning bush planted along the walk leading to the front door of this home.One option is to take the hedge shears to them in early spring. For better, or worse, burning bush is tolerant of very severe pruning and can, therefore, be sheared into a wide range of squares, rectangles and globes!

You can turn a large burning bush into an attractive small tree by removing its lower limbs.Or, you could think a little "outside the box," and turn your burning bush into small trees by removing all of the lower branches, at right. In many situations, this could be a very effective - and ultimately quite attractive option?

And, if you're really courageous - or desperate - you might even want to attempt "rejuvenation" pruning. This technique involves cutting the plants all the way back to stubs no more than six to twelve inches from the ground, below left! Providing they're in otherwise good health, they'll gradually recover from this extreme pruning practice over the course of several years.

The trunk of this burning bush thats been cut back to within a foot of the ground is about six inches in diameter.Of course, no matter how you prune your burning bush, they're still going to continue to grow, and grow, and grow some more!

So, a second option could be to transplant them to spots where they can be allowed to grow as large as they want. Unfortunately, many, if not most residential properties simply aren't big enough to contain a full-grown burning bush - without at least occasional pruning, that is.

The best long term solution is to remove overgrown burning bush and replace them with plants that will not grow too large over time.Finally, and possibly the best long-term option, is to get rid of the plants, and replace them with something that will not grow too large for the space in which they're planted.

A couple of alternatives that grow roughly six feet tall and wide, and feature good to brilliant fall foliage color - along with much better flowers than burning bush, are chokeberry and oakleaf hydrangea.