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Taming the rampant burning bush

UConn shrub has color but no seeds

By Stephanie Reitz
Associated Press / August 22, 2011

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HARTFORD, Conn. - The burning bush shrub, whose blazing autumn hues illuminate many landscapes in the eastern United States, 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 have pushed annual sales of burning bush - also known as winged euonymus alatus - past $38 million nationwide.

Those sales 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 rain and birds. The seeds then 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 US 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 since its invasive tendencies became evident in recent decades, but earlier plants thrive along many highways and in open 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 US Department of Agriculture to start the research.

“It was difficult, but we were confident that it would work and we should not give up,’’ said Li, whose research was published in this month’s issue of the international academic journal HortScience.

They’ve used their findings to grow 12 small sterile burning bush plants so far, though there’s no firm estimate on when the research will be used to bring the new cultivar to the widespread retail market. Heffernan, of the Connecticut Green Industries Council, said the process usually takes a few years.