Professor Yi Li’s laboratory in the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources has developed a seedless variety of the popular ornamental shrub Euonymus alatus, also called ‘burning bush,’ that retains the plant’s brilliant foliage yet eliminates its ability to spread and invade natural habitats.

“The availability of a triploid seedless, non-invasive variety of burning bush creates a win-win situation for both consumers and commercial nurseries,” says Li, head of UConn’s Transgenic Plant Facility and director of the New England Invasive Plant Center at the Storrs campus. “The bush is an extremely popular ornamental plant for landscapers and gardeners because of its intense red autumn foliage and robust ability to grow in a wide range of soils and environmental conditions. In addition, the plant has very few pest or disease problems.”

Also known as ‘winged euonymus’ because of its distinctive winged branches, burning bush is a top cash crop for the $16 billion ornamental plant industry. It is especially popular in New England and along the eastern seaboard, where the shrub is used for foundation plantings, hedges, and along highways and commercial strips.

National sales of burning bush top tens of millions of dollars each year. The plant, however, spreads aggressively and has been listed as an invasive species in 21 states. It has already been banned in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and is on an invasive plant ‘watch list’ in many other states, including Connecticut.

$40 billion invasive cost

Winged euonymus (burning bush), introduced to the U.S. in the 1860s, is highly popular with landscapers due to its brilliant leaves in the fall.

The creation of a non-invasive variety of burning bush should help restore the shrub’s prominence in the commercial marketplace.

“This is a big win for everyone,” says Bob Heffernan, executive director of the Connecticut Green Industries Council. “We get to keep selling a popular plant, the public gets to keep using it in their landscapes, and the environment is safe from invasives.”

Professor Max Cheng, a horticultural plant biotechnologist at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, says Li’s success in regenerating a triploid non-invasive burning bush “has great economic and environmental significance.”

“Several universities and laboratories in the U.S. have been working on developing triploid or sterile burning bush for years,” says Cheng. “Endosperm cells of angiosperms are naturally triploid, but regeneration from endosperm cells, particularly from endosperms of woody species, is often very difficult. Dr. Li’s success represents a major breakthrough in developing sterile, non-invasive Euonymus alatus, which is of great importance to the American ornamental horticulture industry and gardeners.”

Mark Sellew, the owner of Prides Corner Farms of Lebanon, Conn., one of the largest wholesale nurseries in the eastern U.S., also praised UConn’s success in developing a sterile variety of burning bush.

“This sterile cultivar of burning bush could not come soon enough,” says Sellew. “This plant is a very important part of my business. We love working with UConn. I think this shows how very important it is for industry and academia to work together.”