Q: We have three burning bushes in the yard. The birds love the berries in winter and fall. We have had bluebirds, blue jays, robins, cardinals, turkeys, sparrows, finches and chickadees eating the berries. The bushes are considered invasive and you can't buy one. Is it true they are bad for the birds?
— Judy and Don, Hancock, Mass.
A: There is no doubt the berries of the burning bush also known widely as winged euonymous are attractive and readily taken by birds, and the spectacular crimson leaves in the fall are attractive to us.
Unfortunately, it is a invasive plant spreading uncontrollably in many areas, compromising native habitats by spreading widely and invading the forest understory. This shrub, and many other alien pests, spread quickly and widely producing monocultures — large dense patches of just one species.
It is unlawful to sell the shrub in Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut as well as several other states.
Winged euonymous is but one invasive alien overtaking our native plants, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. To see images of many of the plants mentioned in this column, some of which will surprise you, I am sure, go to http://www.vtinvasives.org/invaders/images/plant_common
The Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory Group (MIPAG) defines invasive plants as "non-native species that have spread into native or minimally managed plant systems in Massachusetts, causing economic or environmental harm by developing self-sustaining populations and becoming dominant and/or disruptive to those systems."
Here is just a sampling of common troubling invasive plants that are listed in both Vermont and Massachusetts.
• Norway Maple, planted widely in the past along city and town streets, now found to be outpacing our sugar maples.
• Japanese, Common and European Barberry, that like euonymous is spread widely by birds and is even competing is some woodlands with winged euonymous that together are competing with native flora.
• Oriental Bittersweet grows more aggressively that our native bittersweet. Winding its vines around saplings and eventually choking and shading young trees, it kills them. It also grows up the trunks of mature trees. In regenerating old fields and young forests the plant can be devastating.
I often carry a pair of clippers as I walk in the woods and snip the newer shoots. This only slows their advancement as they propagate not only by seed which birds do spread, but also underground roots.
• Autumn Olive is an attractive shrub once sold widely as a windbreak. Since it continues to spread beyond its intended locations it has been deemed an invasive. This is one I am sorry to admit, I offered for a nominal price back in the late 1960s. It too is spread by birds and invades open areas supplanting native species.
• Rosa Multiflora is another shrub once sold widely and promoted by the USDA as a "living fence," and millions were given to farmers. Unfortunately, the downside became evident as birds began spreading the seeds everywhere. Farmers found that their cows wouldn't eat it. Today, we spend millions trying to eradicate it.
• Garlic Mustard, the roadside and shady place plant producing white flowers shortly and growing profusely, is another invasive that damage and kill other plants by crowding and shading, as well as producing chemicals that eventually kill nearby growth.
One answer is to gently pull the plants and dispose of with the rubbish. It does have one redeeming factor, its tender leaves make a wonderful addition to any salad. And it can't be beat in pesto. I have had it both ways.
Not forgetting you actual question of burning bush harming birds, the answer is not directly, that is not by poisoning them. The harm is more indirect, more subtle.
I will continue this next week.
Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.