Magnificent fall colour from a native shrub

The Sunday before last I was cutting buckthorn in a park with other community volunteers. Sent into a hillside of what once was open oak woodland and set to removing one species of nasty invasive alien with long-handled loppers, I couldn’t restrict myself to just the day’s target species. A couple of common barberries, a volunteer forsythia, and about half a dozen winged euonymus or burning-bush (Euonymus alata) also bit the dust with dozens of buckthorn. I am good at plant ID (in truth, better at it than the park employee who was in charge of the volunteers); I knew what I was doing.

Winged euonymus is not as bad an invasive as the noxious buckthorn, but I have seen it become more and more common in the ravines and in remnant woods in heavily urbanized areas. Is it on its way to become a really bad invasive in southern Ontario? By the time that question is settled, it is almost too late to act.

It always astounds me that winged euonymus, which is a very boring shrub, continues to be such a popular shrub in landscaping. It has one contribution to make – it has bright fall colour. Huhn? We live in a part of the world where the native flora is world-famous for its fall colour, and we use this tedious, invasive European species to provide fall display in our gardens. Are we nuts? Do we not know any native shrubs which have bright fall colour?

Allow me to introduce maple-leaved viburnum (Viburnum acerifolia).

How vivid do you want your native shrubs to be?

Pretty maple-shaped  leaves in bright tones of pink and red ought to endear it to every Canadian, eh? It grows in woodlands so it puts up with closed-canopy shade. The fall colour is more vivid red in sun, more delicately pink in shade but it is always lovely. It is not a big shrub. Shrubs of Ontario says “less than 2 m” but I often see it in deciduous woods as an under-storey layer reaching no more than about 4 ft (1.2 m). It has modest white flowers in the spring. In the fall, as a dark counterpoint to the splashy leaves, it carries clusters of blue-black fruits that are popular with birds. Why isn’t it in every garden? Who would want a boring old burning-bush euonymus if garden centres had this one front and centre? 

Blue-black fruit of maple-leaved viburnum.

Yet garden centres never offer our lovely maple-leaved viburnum and the average homeowner doesn’t know to ask them to try to order it in. It is not the easiest shrub to propagate, as it is slow to germinate from seeds, but it has got to be oodles easier than, say, the named cultivars of magnolias, which are available everywhere.

So let’s change the balance here. Let’s have far fewer invasive European euonymus in our gardens and far more bird-feeding native viburnums blazing away  on sunny autumn days. If the local garden centre doesn’t carry it (and it would take a small miracle to see it there), then find a native plant specialist who does carry maple-leaved viburnum. This is a shrub which gives you maximum aesthetic values and top-notch ecological value.


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Trish Murphy

Artist: botanical, still life, and natural history illustration. Garden designer: native plants and naturalistic gardens