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Native Alternatives: Chokeberry Over Burning Bush

Euonymus alatus, commonly known as burning bush, was introduced from China and Japan as an ornamental plant in the mid 1800’s. While it’s appreciated for its vibrant red foliage in the fall, sadly this is but one of MANY non-native plants that are now major disruptors of ecosystems across the US.

Effect of Invasives

Invasive plants, non-native and fast-growing, disrupt ecosystems by altering soil chemistry, nutrient cycles, and sunlight availability, pushing out native plants and the wildlife that rely on them.

One reason for their success is the absence of native insect herbivores that control them in their home habitats. Since few native insects can feed on non-native plants - and insects are critical for the food web - it affects many species' survival, including baby birds in the nest, toads, frogs, bats, foxes and more.

Many invasive plants, including the burning bush, produce fruits that birds eat and spread. These fruits don't align with the nutrient needs of our local wildlife, affecting their health and foraging patterns.

Our Native Alternative

Luckily, our own native red and black chokeberry shrubs boast 4 seasons of interest, including the same brilliant red fall foliage seen with burning bush, AND, unlike burning bush, they’re highly valuable to local wildlife.

Chokeberry blooms

Profuse clusters of white flowers in April-May provide critical early nourishment for pollinators, and are followed by high-antioxidant berries edible to humans. If left on the shrub, the berries are eaten by 40 species of birds and numerous small mammals. At least 29 species of Lepidoptera host on Aronia, including the coral hairstreak butterfly.

A coral hairstreak butterfly on butterfly weed
Coral Hairstreak Butterfly

Chokeberries are self-fertile, but the amount and size of fruits are improved when at least two of the same species are planted close together.

Pruning and shaping of chokeberry shrubs should be done in winter. Remove suckers around the base of the plant as soon as they appear if you wish to prevent spreading. (Cuttings can be rooted to grow a whole new shrub!)

Red Chokeberry

Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is an endangered species in Ohio that typically reaches 6-12’ tall and 3-6’ wide, with a vase-shaped, upright habit. It can be sited in part sun, but full sun produces more profuse flowers and fruit. Average to wet clay or loamy soils work best, but flooding and wet sites are tolerated.

Bright red berries persist through much of winter. Once the leaves fall, multiple stems with attractive, peeling, red-brown bark provide warm winter accents. Red chokeberry grows slowly and spreads by seeds and suckers to form colonies.

To learn more about the medicinal and culinary uses of red chokeberry, check out our in-depth plant profile.

Black Chokeberry

Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is so-named for its dark purple fruits. It’s a versatile, under-utilized, low-maintenance shrub that grows 3-6’ tall and wide in part shade and a wide variety of soil types.

Fruit production and fall color are more intense when sited in a moist area with at least 5-6 hours of sun. While it prefers well-drained conditions, it’s adaptable and hardy, tolerating wet soils and salt, making it a good choice for boggy areas and roadsides. Once mature, it tolerates drought and has few pest or disease problems.

For medicinal, edible, historical and other information, check out black chokeberry’s plant profile.

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