HARTFORD, Conn. – The burning bush shrub, whose blazing autumn hues illuminate many eastern U.S. landscapes, may soon be getting a makeover to curb its voracious appetite for other plants’ land, sunlight and soil nutrients.
After almost a decade of work, a University of Connecticut scientist and his research team have pinpointed the genetic combination to grow a seedless, noninvasive version of burning bush without sacrificing its stunning fall colors and durability.
In short, they’ve neutered the incorrigible plant to make it behave.
Horticulture experts say the newly published findings by Dr. Yi Li and others at the New England Invasive Plant Center in Storrs could be a boon for landscapers and gardeners, who’ve pushed annual sales of burning bush — also known as winged Euonymus alatus — past $38 million nationwide.
Those figures come despite its listing as an invasive plant in 21 states, and outright sales bans in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. And since UConn will hold the patent with Li, the university also could receive significant royalties if the noninvasive bush is a big seller.
“It’s a great use of science and a win for everybody if they can take a popular, invasive plant and render it sterile so it’s still sellable,” said Robert Heffernan, executive director of the Connecticut Green Industries Council. “People do love this plant and they ask for it. That brilliant red color in the autumn makes it look like it’s absolutely on fire.”
The durable and dense ornamental bush is a popular foundation planting or landscaping border because it thrives in many soils. It also stands up to varying weather, is unfazed by road salt and fertilizer, and is unpalatable to most insects and animals.
But there’s a price to pay.
It produces thousands of seeds that easily waft away in the wind, or are carried away by rainwater and birds. Then, they take root in open woodlands and elsewhere. With its thickly matted roots and heights averaging 6 to 9 feet — and up to 15 feet if left unpruned — it makes such dense thickets that other plants have trouble competing for soil and sun.
Burning bush is native to eastern Asia and was introduced in the U.S. in the mid-1800s.
It’s now most common in New England and many East Coast states, though it can also be found as far south as Georgia and as far west as Illinois.
Many governments have stopped planting it on state-owned land, but earlier plants thrive still along many highways and in woods where they’ve taken root.
Li and other UConn scientists have been studying ways to produce sterile cultivars of burning bush since receiving a grant in 2003 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to start the research.
The work was tedious and painstaking: getting into thousands of the small seeds, removing bits of their tiny nourishing tissue, then treating it with special growth regulators and growing it in Petri dishes. Through trial and error, they finally hit on the right combination.
“It was difficult, but we were confident that it would work and we should not give up,” said Li, whose work was published in the August issue of HortScience.