Normally, if your favorite color is red, you’re in heaven during a New England autumn. The slow crimson tide begins in September with the red maples, locally called swamp maples, and then flows on to the vivid Virginia creeper, clambering up dead trees and across paths. By October the azaleas around people’s houses are getting rusty and the blueberries have turned a pure garnet red. Some years the sugar maples deepen from yellow through orange all the way to scarlet, and oaks, which retain their leaves most of the winter, turn shades along a spectrum from gold to bronze to brick.
This year has been drab, everyone agrees, although that’s relative: a drab October in New England is still a stupendous display, as every single deciduous tree undergoes some sort of transformation. But we’ve all been missing the reds, which must have been affected by the heavy rains through May, June, and July. The early reds were over fast, and the sugar maples never caught fire and blazed the way they often do.
Into the niche has stepped, with stunning boldness, the burning bush (Euonymus alatus), a cousin of the wild native Eastern Wahoo (the best plant name ever). This week the shrubs are at their peak, and everywhere you walk or drive, they punctuate the landscape with exclamation points. On a rainy Saturday I found myself driving around with my camera and snapping away at these luscious reds hiding in commonplace spots — defining a gas station’s perimeter; spilling across a hotel’s gray stone wall; anchoring the back corner of an old granite church or a boarded-up restaurant; lighting up an otherwise obscure slope by a parking lot; or simply lining a highway.
Burning bush probably causes car accidents as the eye drinks it in.
Burning bush thrives in slightly acidic soil and turns reddest in full sun, deep pink in full shade. It’s considered a very easy plant to care for (even growing from a stem stuck in the ground). You can prune it into any shape or leave it rambling and natural, although it can be invasive, wandering into woodlands and competing with native plants, according to Storey’s Homeowner's Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook.
The ideal setting for burning bush is the small town/exurban/suburban landscape, where it can’t travel far.Eastern Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpurea) is a wild native shrub in the same family, glowing here and there in the woods. Its color is soft and lovely, not as bold as E. alatus, and its best feature is its red berries with deep pink sepals (said to be poisonous). I’ve transplanted Wahoo among the burning bush for the best of both.
Enjoy these exclamation points of the season, the summer’s swan song, the last burst of exuberance before the leaves drift away into the monochrome of November.