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Beware of the invaders: Seek out native replacements for burning bush, bittersweet and other stunning but destructive beauties

  • Dan Ziomek of Hadley Gardent Center shows a selection of native trees and shrubs, such as blueberry, red stem dogwood and serviceberry that make good substitutes for banned invasive plants. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Dan Ziomek of Hadley Gardent Center shows a selection of native trees and shrubs, such as blueberry, red stem dogwood and serviceberry that make good substitutes for banned invasive plants.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dan Ziomek of Hadley Garden Center shows selection of native trees and shrubs, such as blueberry, red stem dogwood and serviceberry that make good substitutes for banned invasive plants.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Dan Ziomek of Hadley Garden Center shows selection of native trees and shrubs, such as blueberry, red stem dogwood and serviceberry that make good substitutes for banned invasive plants.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dan Ziomek carries mountain laurels at Hadley Garden Center.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Dan Ziomek carries mountain laurels at Hadley Garden Center.

    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dan Ziomek of Hadley Garden Center shows a selection of native trees and shrubs, such as mountain laurel, front, blueberry, red stem dogwood and serviceberry at Hadley Garden Center.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Dan Ziomek of Hadley Garden Center shows a selection of native trees and shrubs, such as mountain laurel, front, blueberry, red stem dogwood and serviceberry at Hadley Garden Center.

    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dan Ziomek with a dwarf fothergilla at Hadley Garden Center.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Dan Ziomek with a dwarf fothergilla at Hadley Garden Center.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dan Ziomek of Hadley Gardent Center shows a selection of native trees and shrubs, such as blueberry, red stem dogwood and serviceberry that make good substitutes for banned invasive plants. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Dan Ziomek of Hadley Garden Center shows selection of native trees and shrubs, such as blueberry, red stem dogwood and serviceberry that make good substitutes for banned invasive plants.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Dan Ziomek carries mountain laurels at Hadley Garden Center.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Dan Ziomek of Hadley Garden Center shows a selection of native trees and shrubs, such as mountain laurel, front, blueberry, red stem dogwood and serviceberry at Hadley Garden Center.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Dan Ziomek with a dwarf fothergilla at Hadley Garden Center.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

Norway maple, Japanese barberry and burning bush for decades were popular landscape plants throughout New England. Now, however, they are banned from sale in Massachusetts because of their invasive nature.

The problem for homeowners and landscape professionals is what to plant in their place.

“Burning bush in particular people still look for,” said Dan Ziomek, nursery manager at the Hadley Garden Center. Barberry is another sought-after shrub and “bittersweet is up there, too,” he said. Oriental bittersweet was prized for its colorful orange fall berries but it can strangle trees as well as shrubs and its berries are spread by birds.

In searching for alternatives to the banned plants, Ziomek said he considers why people wanted something like a Norway maple (Acer platanoides) in the first place: quick growth, dense shade and pest-resistance. The ‘Crimson King’ variety of Norway maple is what people really miss, he added. He can recommend red-foliaged Japanese maples or an American native red maple whose foliage is a gorgeous red in the fall, but neither is the same as the stately ‘Crimson King,’ a reliable shade tree. He added there is a new red-leafed cherry called ‘Krauter’s Vesuvius’ which may satisfy some customers. Zelkova, an elm-like tree, or some of the new disease-resistant elms like ‘Princeton,’ are other options.

Some customers are very happy to buy a substitute, Ziomek said, but others simply say “That’s not what I’m looking for” and go away empty-handed.

Research under way

For burning bush, (Euonymus alata) there are a lot of nice options, Ziomek said. One great alternative is blueberries. Not only do blueberry bushes have edible fruit, their foliage turns just about as red as a burning bush in the fall, so it is ornamental as well as edible. Other possibilities are chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) with red fruits, shrub dogwoods with red or yellow stems, enkianthus, summer-blooming native azaleas like swamp azalea and sweet azalea and a lot of new weigelas, he added.

Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) was popular as a hedge because of its nasty thorns as well as its red fall foliage or its all-season purple leaves and berries loved by birds. There isn’t any exact substitute with thorns as well as foliage and berries but fothergilla is a wonderful native shrub with good fall foliage and dramatic bottle-brush blossoms in early spring. Itea virginica is a summer-flowering native shrub with good fall foliage also. If a customer wants something to intimidate intruders there are always scratchy junipers.

Ziomek said that Connecticut nurserymen and academic researchers are trying to perfect sterile — that is seedless — varieties of burning bush and barberry. “That was big hit for them. They lost a lot of money on those two plants alone,” he said. Rena Sumner of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association confirmed that University of Connecticut researchers are working on this challenge and MNLA supports the work. It would be helpful to the nursery industry, she explained, if sterile forms could be developed that could safely be propagated and sold.

Multiflora rose, which was seldom deliberately planted in recent years but escaped from earlier landscaping, is a bit harder to duplicate with alternate plants, he admitted. Rosa rugosa, the native beach rose, is just as thorny but lacks the graceful arching stems of the multiflora. ‘Knock Out’ roses, which are relatively new hybrid shrubs, are a good substitute although not a native. Other possibilities are ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), a newly-popular shrub from the Midwest, some with gold or burgundy foliage, or the native chokeberry.

Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellatus) was long touted by bird enthusiasts because they provide for seeds and shelter. Now the Audubon Society discourages its planting and it is among the banned shrubs in Massachusetts. Its appeal, apart from its bird connections, was its fragrant flowers, fast growth and ability to survive in wet sites. Pussy willow, winterberry, swamp pink azalea, shrub dogwoods, serviceberry, buttonbush, clethra, chokeberry and witherod viburnum (V. cassinoides) are all good substitutes, Ziomek said.

Look for lists

As for that old popular bittersweet, you could try climbing hydrangea which thrives in shade, clematis in many varieties, Dutchman’s pipe with curious lady-slipper-like flowers or trumpet honeysuckle. None of these, however, produces the colorful fall berries that people once loved.

Honeysuckles? Wait, you say, aren’t honeysuckles on the banned list? Yes, many imported shrub varieties are banned — Lonicera japonica, Morrow’s and Bell’s honeysuckles, but Lonicera sempervirens is a native vining species with an especially touted new cultivar called ‘Major Wheeler’ with bold red flowers.

Ziomek cautioned, however, that most vines can be aggressive even if not invasive, so keep an eye on them.

Viburnum is another genus that contains valuable natives as well as banned or potentially invasive imports. Ziomek said he particularly likes the witherod viburnum (V. cassinoides).

There are plenty of lists recommending substitutes for the banned shrubs and trees, perennials and grasses. A good list of substitutes can be found on the website of the New England Wild Flower Society. It was prepared by the great writer on native plants, William Cullina, when he was still horticulture director for NEWFS. Now he is the director of the Coastal Maine Botanic Garden, where you can see many of his favorites in the landscape.

Some of the plants recommended in books as substitutes — or as potentially invasive — may not be reliably hardy in our area. Even with global warming we don’t need to worry about kudzu. So be sure to check hardiness zones when making wish lists. For instance, certain Japanese maples still need a protected site in the Pioneer Valley to thrive. And Ziomek said when he first started in the nursery business in the 1980s, buddleias (now potentially invasive) died back to the ground each winter. With global warming they tend to be hardier and new cultivars like ‘Lo and Behold’ dwarf buddleia do well here.

Do some research in books and on the Internet to learn which plants are banned and which plants are recommended substitutes. Then, go to your local garden center or nursery and ask which one would do best in your special growing situation. The “return of the natives” will enhance your landscape and feed the birds as well as the insects which rely on natives for sustenance. Remember, many of those birds you love primarily eat insects along with seeds.

Related

Massachusetts leads the way in banning invasives

Monday, April 29, 2013

It took years for native plant enthusiasts and conservation proponents to convince state authorities to ban certain invasive plants. The prohibition first went into effect in 2006 with some species allowed to be sold until 2009. The list was developed initially, starting in 1995, by the Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory Group, a consortium of nursery owners, conservation advocates, scientists and …

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