Ask the Gardener

Holy smoke! It's a burning bush!

CORRESPONDENTDecember 7, 2012 

COURTESY OF L.A. JACKSON

You may be the wrong person to ask about this, but can you tell me if there are any religious connections to the burning bush that is often seen in this area?
Neil Anderson, Durham

By “burning bush” I’m going to assume you mean the ornamental shrub that goes by that common name and is botanically known as Euonymus alatus. It is also called “winged burning bush” because of the distinctive flat extensions along its branches. It came to our shores from central China, so any notion that this was the shrub growing and glowing on Mount Sinai when Moses strolled by would be a stretch. I do know, however, that when gardeners see this bush showing off its bright crimson fall coat, their first words are usually “Holy smoke!” That’s about as close to a religious connection as I can offer.

Burning bush is considered invasive in states to our north because it readily reseeds in those areas. However, for now, burning bush seems to have infringed upon but not fully invaded North Carolina woodlands.

If you are not at ease with an introduced plant that could possibly escape into the wild someday, there are indigenous alternatives. One excellent substitute would be the native Virginia sweetspire ( Itea virginica), and, in particular, the cultivar ‘Henry’s Garnet.’ True to the jewel in its name, this shrub will light up the autumn landscape with a rich red. Ditto for red chokeberry ( Aronia arbutifolia), a compact native bush that turns a brilliant scarlet in the fall. The best autumn color is found in the sassy cultivar ‘Brilliantissima.’

Edible or dreadful?

I need you to settle a bet: Are ornamental peppers edible?
Dave Stevens, Wilmington

Ornamental peppers –often sold as “Christmas peppers” at this time of year – are edible, but whether you will like them is another matter. These plants, which are usually suitably short in size for showing off in pots indoors, were bred for looks, not taste, so you will get the extreme scorch associated with a hot pepper, but little of the tangy, complex flavors typical of garden-grown hot peppers. My best advice: Look but don’t chomp – and instead have a good ol’ bottle of Texas Pete on hand to tingle your taste buds properly until you can get a crop of decent hot peppers growing in the spring garden.

Also, keep in mind that another similar-looking potted holiday ornamental seen in stores these days, the Jerusalem cherry, is not a pepper, and more important, its small round, yellow or reddish-orange fruits are poisonous, so avoid the temptation to take a bite.

L.A. Jackson is former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. Send your garden questions, including the city where you garden, to askthegardener@newsobserver.com

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