For autumn interest, choose attractive shrubs that help WNY’s environment

by Connie Oswald Stofko

How did your landscape look this autumn? Did you have lovely autumn perennials? Trees bursting with fall-colored leaves?

How about shrubs?

Chances are you don’t have shrubs with autumn interest, and if you do, it’s a popular shrub that is problematic.

As you make your plans for next year, consider choosing a native shrub that is interesting in autumn in Western New York.

Stunning, but problematic: burning bush

burning bush
Burning bush has lovely autumn foliage, but it causes some problems. Consider native plants with foliage just as striking. Photo courtesy Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org

I’ve got to admit, burning bush (Euonymus alatus), also known as winged euonymus, is beautiful, with vibrant red leaves in fall. It’s deer resistant, too, which makes it even more desirable to gardeners.

But it causes problems when it escapes the confines of your garden and gets into wild areas.

Well, the bush doesn’t get out of your garden, but its seeds can, and burning bush produces lots of seeds. Birds can carry the seeds into wild areas, according to this information from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The seed grows into a bush that can get 5 to 15 feet tall. That bush drops lots of seeds, and many close to the mother plant germinate, creating a dense bed of seedlings. These large thickets displace native plants and shrubs.

And don’t forget–deer don’t like burning bush, so they may eat other plants instead, according to Western New York PRISM.

Plus, it tolerates both sun and shade. It’s adaptable to a variety of soil conditions, with high salt tolerance, too.

Burning bush totally outcompetes native plants.

WNY PRISM is trying to eradicate burning bush from wild areas. This species may be underreported, according to WNY PRISM. If you see a burning bush outside of a tended landscape setting, please report it to iMapInvasives.

Burning bush is a regulated species in New York State. That means you can buy a burning bush and plant it in your yard, but you can’t have it in a wild area.

There are better choices.

Native shrubs for autumn

highbush cranberry
American cranberry bush. Photo courtesy Jlpoole2 via Wikimedia

Instead of planting an invasive species in your garden, consider a native shrub instead.

Pros: Native plants are generally no fuss and easy to care for. They support native wildlife. When you plant native plants, your yard becomes part of a homegrown national park.

Cons: Native shrubs aren’t as easy to find as ornamental shrubs are in Western New York.

However, the number of native plants is increasing in local garden centers. In addition, native shrubs are available in plant and shrub sales held by local counties and by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. I usually publish the information in February, so watch for that.

Try to find a native species rather than a hybrid, cultivar or nativar.

Here are some native shrubs that add autumn interest. These were suggested by Western New York PRISM and by members of Native Plants of WNY Collaborative.

American cranberrybush

The American cranberrybush or highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum L. Ait, formerly known as Viburnum trilobum), is not a cranberry, but its fruit strongly resembles cranberries in both appearance and taste, according to University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The fruit also matures in the fall, as cranberries do.

The fruit is rich in vitamin C and has a tart, acid taste (the taste is best after a frost and when picked slightly under-ripe). The fruit is an excellent substitute for cranberries and are used in preserves, jams and jellies and sauces.

In addition to the attractive fruit, in autumn the leaves change to yellow-red or red-purple.

Find more information here.

Black chokeberry

In autumn, the leaves of black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) change from green to vibrant tones of red, orange and purple, according to the University of Minnesota Extension. In spring, it has showy white flower clusters.

The berries are used in baking and to make jams, jellies, syrup, tea, juice and wine. Fruit can persist into winter and serves as a food source for birds and other wildlife.

Deer and rabbits like black chokeberry.

See more here.

Fragrant sumac

fragrant sumac
Fragrant sumac. Photo courtesy Bruce Marlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The leaves of fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) turn attractive shades of orange, red and purple in autumn, according to Missouri Botanical Garden.

It gets its name because it is aromatic when bruised.

Low growing, it typically grows two to four feet tall (less frequently to six feet) and spreads to 10 feet wide. 

Fragrant sumac isn’t a neat and tidy shrub. It’s dense and rambling, spreading by root suckers to form thickets in the wild.

Bush honeysuckle

In autumn, foliage of bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) turns yellow, orange, red or purple, according to University of Minnesota Extension.

These are easy-to-grow, low-growing, suckering plants. They are adaptable to many soil types and all light levels.

Although deer browse on bush honeysuckle in the wild, they rarely feed on the plant in landscape plantings.

See more here.

Winterberry

With winterberry (Ilex verticillata), it’s the bright red berries that add autumn interest. The berries grow in late summer or autumn and persist through winter, according to Missouri Botanical Garden.

The leaves aren’t usually dramatic in fall, but in some years they may turn attractive shades of maroon.

Although it’s an attractive shrub, the native isn’t sold often because of the many excellent cultivars that generally produce showier flowers and larger, more abundant fruit, according to Missouri Botanical Garden.

See more here.

Gray dogwood

The flower stems of the gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) are distinctively red and provide interesting contrast to the clusters of small white berries that form after the flowers have dropped, according to Missouri Botanical Garden. The red stem color is more easily seen after the fruits are gone, and red color often persists into early winter.

The leaves turn an interesting (but not always showy) dusky purplish red in fall.

See more here.

Western Serviceberry

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) provides year-round interest, according to University of Minnesota Extension. In spring, there are white flowers followed by edible, purple fruit. In autumn, there is yellow to red foliage.

Serviceberry can be used as specimen and key plants in landscapes as well as in group plantings as borders, backdrops and screens.

See more here.

Arrowood Viburnum

Arrowood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) has variable fall color ranging from drab yellow to attractive shades of orange and red, according to Missouri Botanical Garden. Its flowers and fruits are showy.

It tolerates clay soil and black walnut trees.

See more here.

8 Comments on “For autumn interest, choose attractive shrubs that help WNY’s environment

  1. Fothergilla is another excellent choice. Has multiple fall colors on one shrub. There are 2 varieties, fothergilla magor which can get 10 feet tall and wide and fothergilla gardenii, 8 feet tall and wide. Deer seem to leave them alone. A bonus!

  2. Thanks Connie for posting these choices as I want to plant some next year. Great article!

  3. Who knew?! So many choices – and their downsides, good to know before you invest the capital and time to see them to maturity.

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