Garden Notes

Burning bush
Its ability to light up a dull, overcast day accounts for the popularity of Euonymus Alatus, or burning bush. Prolifically sown by birds, it has become invasive, taking over large areas of woodlands in the Northeast. Photos by Susan Safford

Autumn pleasures

By Abigail Higgins - November 9, 2006

In November we take what pleasure we can from our gardens, as it is all borrowed time. I just cut two large bouquets of dahlias, white cosmos, and ageratum 'Blue Horizon,' the tall-growing one that is such a good cutflower. Are these the last? Garden mums, other cold tolerant annuals, and foliage effects all contribute to the color and enjoyment of the fall garden.

Doing its part and shouting out brightly on Island properties is Euonymus alatus, the winged euonymus or burning bush, unquestionably giving enjoyment to owners and passers-by. Its red is so vivid! Spending the rest of the growing year as a normal, green-leaf plant with green and grey striped bark and odd, corky vanes on the stems, the shrub is well known as a hedge or specimen on account of its blazing, cerise autumn phase and day-glow orange/pink fruits.


So what's not to like? Those fluorescent fruit! The plant produces them plentifully and birds like them. We work in gardens in the West Chop area where seedling euonymus is practically the signature weed. As more people plant Euonymus alatus for its decorative effects, more and more of the seed is spread around. West of Boston, to Worcester, in patches of woodland that are in a "wild" state, Euonymus alatus dominates the understory.

Not wanting to be thought of as a plant-police type, I am going to suggest merely that gardeners think twice before planting more Euonymus alatus, despite its fall color siren-call, and that owners of existing plantings learn to recognize the plant's seedlings. (In some cases hedging would be appropriate, to limit fruit production.)

A follow-up suggestion is to acquaint oneself with "Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants," the latest in the helpful Brooklyn Botanic Garden series of gardener's guides, this one edited by Bonnie Harper-Lore and Janet Marinelli. The encyclopedia section, by gifted plantsman and garden designer C. Colston Burrell, is designed to help gardeners make alternative plans when they learn that their intended plant choice is problematic.

For example, look under the entry for Euonymus alatus. Given as good alternative choices are: Aronia melanocarpa, the black chokeberry; Vaccinium corymbosum, the highbush blueberry; and Rhus aromatica, the fragrant sumac. All share brilliant autumn color and similar size/use with Euonymus alatus but are drawn from the ranks of native plants and are non-invasive.

The guide serves also as an introduction to many native plants interesting and beautiful in their own right. Although "Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants" is only 239 pages, it is comprehensive, with well-photographed sections on trees, shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants and grasses. I encountered for the first time a number of plants that intrigued me. I should like to have the opportunity to buy or plant, for instance: the beautiful, blue purple rock clematis, C. columbiana; or the shrub ocean spray, Holodiscus discolor. It would be satisfying to replace a groundcover planting of suburban ivy with one of yellowroot, Xanthorhiza simplicissima, or with longleaf mahonia, Mahonia nervosa.

By now the reader has realized where my column is heading: to the life indoors and inward, and to the bookshelf. For novice, amateur, or professional alike, shorter days and cold weather provide time away from the garden to study, contemplate, synthesize, and dream. Personally, my efforts in this area must be supported by good reference books.

Welcome bookshelf addition

A recent arrival across my desk is the 2006 edition of the new American Horticultural Society "Encyclopedia of Perennials," (Dorling Kindersley, London, 2006, 496 ppg, $40). The editor-in-chief is the British plantsman and garden writer Graham Rice, who is highly respected on both sides of the Atlantic. The contributing editor is Kurt Bluemel, the internationally known plantsman and designer who is the godfather of ornamental grass use in American gardens.

I have perused it, checked out my favorite plants, ditto unknown ones I have become curious about, turned page after page. A large-format, weighty tome, visually the book is a tour de force, with many full-size color photo spreads illustrating ideas for dazzling perennial combinations. Very good, brief essay sections precede the A-Z directory, describing what constitutes a perennial plant and an overview of using perennials in garden design. Additionally there is a how-to-use-the-book spread, an informative piece on plant name usage (one of my personal interests) that I thought was excellent, and an explanation of plant hardiness and climate. Many gardeners are generally familiar with these elements, but it is a teaching tool to round them up once again and corral them together in the pages of a reference book that is sure to be visited often.

It is the A-Z directory that is the meat of a plant encyclopedia and in this case, salad and dessert are served too. Each page's listings are augmented by one of several visual aids: photographs of listed plants; unobtrusive informational sidebars; or six- by six-inch boxes of planting suggestions, such as "Using delphiniums in the garden," or "Rich foliage, brilliant fall color," above a sumptuous photo-bleed illustration. Thus, many of the attributes of a good garden periodical are added to the encyclopedic entries.

It was pleasurable to read and peruse many pages of entries; everything I looked up was accurate and sound to the extent of my knowledge, written in a factual style by people who love plants. The back of the book contains an extensive list of common names. Would it be too calculating to suggest that it would make a great Christmas gift for a special gardener?

The man who is arguably America's best-known grass farmer is coming to the Island for a round of outreach and farm visits, thanks to a consortium of Island organizations. The Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society, Farm Institute, Island Grown Initiative, and Slow Food Martha's Vineyard will present Joel Salatin at 7:30 pm at Agricultural Hall on Nov. 17. The public is invited and refreshments will be served.