The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 8, 2010


Burning Bush – consuming the woods

Burning Bush is deceptively pretty. (Photo by Drew Kissinger)

Closeup of the leaves.
(Photo by Drew Kissinger)

Right now Burning Bush is starting to live up to its name – the top-most leaves start to burn with a red foliage fire until the whole bush is consumed and glowing. It can be a very nice sight in the fall, unless of course you value native species, and the diversity and beauty of healthy New England woods.

Burning Bush is one of the easiest of the invasive species to identify because it was widely planted as an ornamental. A native of Asia, it was a very popular ornamental shrub up until a couple of years ago. Spear-point shaped leaves grow opposing each other along branches with woody wings along their length. In a productive year, a mature bush will have thousands of bright red berries hanging along the branches, into early winter after the leaves have fallen. I used to have an impressive hedge row of 30- year-old Burning Bushes in my yard and the sparrows loved to hide and sing in its strong protective branches and eat its berries. After the berries are gone the snaky green and tan branches look pretty covered in snow.

This weekend is the perfect time to go out and hone your Burning Bush identification skills, and to encounter first-hand why this bush – though undeniably beautiful – is a menace to our woods. After visiting the transfer station, go left on Lowell Street and drive over to the second State Park headquarters building on the left-hand side of the road. That big red tanker truck is parked next to a hedgerow of huge old Burning Bush that is aflame with red leaves. Park in the lot and get out of your car to take a close look at the leaf shape, notice how the leaves grow opposed along the branches. The woody bumps along the younger green branches become prominent woody wings on older growth. Notice the ripening berries in profusion. Nice looking plant right? You can see why it was so popular with gardeners. But the reason its sale has been banned as an invasive species is that birds find those berries delicious and they spread them far and wide. The vigorous nature of this plant makes it a very hardy invasive.

Now turn around and head off down the hill through the woods along Lowell Street and scrutinize every shrub you walk by. You’ll see three or four good-sized Burning Bushes in the woods, and sporadic patches of seedlings. Look closely at the seedlings, they have the same opposed leaf pattern but the branch wings are more like bumps on the young plants.

Keep walking about 100 yards down to River Meadow Brook and stop at the water’s edge. There is a new grove of Burning Bush taking hold along the bank. In a few years that patch will turn into a dense thicket of Burning Bush that will crowd out all the other native shrubs – no blueberries, no spice bush, just Burning Bush. There is a very dense patch of it growing on the right side of Bedford Road between the post office and Church Street as you leave the center. The under-story of this patch of woods is almost exclusively Burning Bush.

Unlike a wild fire, Burning Bush spreads relatively slowly. Because the seeds are carried away by birds, gardeners may not see any seedlings near their bushes. Unless you are looking for them and have trained your eye you are liable to mistake Burning Bush for blueberry.They look pretty similar when given only a casual glance. It is easy to miss Burning Bush in the woods until it forms a thicket. This may be why it took so long to recognize Burning Bush as an invasive species.

If only that forest fire tanker truck could spray water on the hedgerow and quickly extinguish this fire before it consumes our woods, but unfortunately Burning Bush is a good bit tougher to get rid of. Young plants can be pulled by hand, but the older bushes need to be cut down and then dug out with a mattock. Unfortunately any green roots or branches left in the ground will re-sprout, and if the plants you are attacking are old enough to have dropped seeds, they will sprout vigorously in the new light space you create by removing the mature bushes. Always wear gloves when attacking this plant because the branch wings are sharp. The stems can be cut and chemically treated, but remember by removing invasive species we are trying to conserve nature in our beautiful town (our water supply included), so be circumspect and careful when using chemicals, and before you do anything near wetlands be sure to get approval from the Conservation Commission.

The obvious objection to pulling out Burning Bush is that it is such an easy to care for plant that looks good in all four seasons. This is true of many of the invasive species in our woods. However, there are many cultivars of New England native shrubs that are similar in size, shape, and colorful display; for example High Bush Blueberry, Spice Bush and Red Chokeberry. There is one in particular that is much more beautiful: Maple Leaf Viburnum. If you like Burning Bush, you’ll love Maple Leaf Viburnum for its beautiful leaf shape, hearty carefree growth, beautiful flower buds, flowers, then berries, and sublime rose-purple fall color. It has a beautiful mounded shape in the winter as well, really fantastic in every season.

Some day I hope to visit Northern Japan in the fall where I’ve heard there are whole hillsides blazing with native Burning Bush – I’m sure it is lovely. Until then, I will enjoy the glory of watching our native species light up the woods each fall. ∆

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