April 20, 2005 | By: Terri McLean

Invasive or noninvasive? That is the question.
At least that’s one of the questions Cindy Finneseth of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture ponders as she studies the burning bush to see if the popular landscape plant has a tendency to out compete and gradually displace native plants, as many conservation groups claim.

“I don’t know that I necessarily agree with that, so we’re looking at the ecology to see if there’s a real problem with invasiveness with burning bush,” said Finneseth, seed testing coordinator for the college’s Division of Regulatory Services. 

At the heart of Finneseth’s study is the most common variety of burning bush (Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’), which often is found in Kentucky landscapes. At the same time, however, she is researching a variety of burning bush called Rudy Haag – named for the Kentucky nurseryman who developed it. Its noninvasive quality makes it a potential replacement plant.

“If the straight species [of burning bush] is invasive – and we don’t know that for sure yet – then Rudy Haag may be an excellent alternative because, number one, it’s from Kentucky and, of course, we like to promote Kentucky products. But also because it has this noninvasive quality,” she said.

Finneseth tackled this study for her Ph.D. project in crop science, primarily upon the suggestion of UK adviser Bob Geneve, who started field studies of burning bush in 2003.

“(This study) is important because burning bush is used a lot,” said Finneseth, who attributes its popularity to the plant’s flaming red color in the fall and interesting bark.

Furthermore, she said, “If the common burning bush is truly invasive, and if the Rudy Haag variety is a noninvasive alternative, I’d like to see that we’d be able to step up and fill that niche in the market and that our nurserymen would be able to profit from that.”

That’s the economic side of her study. The science behind the project centers on finding out what makes one cultivar invasive and another noninvasive.

“I want to contribute to the body of knowledge – what makes things invasive, what allows them to take over areas that are nonnative,” she said.

Finneseth is especially passionate about that component of her research because of the tendency by some groups to hastily place plants on an invasive species list, sometimes without scientific basis. Such a list is designed to curtail use of certain plants and, in some cases, can lead to a sales quarantine. She worries about the impact of such actions, especially in Kentucky. 

“If some things were considered invasive and there were no scientific basis, then that could adversely affect a lot of businesses,” Finneseth said.

She is particularly concerned about the nursery industry, which annually produces hundreds of thousands of field or container-grown burning bush plants. 

“If burning bush gets put onto an invasive species list and can’t be sold, then that’s a huge impact on our Kentucky nurserymen,” Finneseth said.

She also is protective of the seed industry, with which she works daily. 

“We have such a classy industry here,” she said. “So if we could provide them with good information; if these species truly are invasive, then they shouldn’t be selling them. I think they would fully embrace that and be proponents of that.”


Writer: Terri McLean 859-257-4736, ext. 276

Contact: Cindy Finneseth 859-257-2785