Most of my suggestions will grow in USDA Zone 5b gardens because most of them are currently growing in my garden today. Your mileage may vary depending on the zone you are in and the conditions you garden in.
Here’s my list.
Viburnum carlesii (Korean Spice Viburnum)
The foliage is a bit more maroon than bright clown red but it’s a good tradeoff for burning bush because it also has fragrant blooms in the spring that start off as pink buds and then open to white flowers. In addition to the beautiful fall foliage, there are black berries for the birds. Plus it doesn’t get quite as big as a burning bush. (Oops, did I just suggest that burning bush leaves are “clown red”?)
Fothergilla gardenii (Dwarf Fothergilla)
This is one of the most carefree shrubs in my garden, growing to a height of around three feet with no pruning. Plus, it has white bottlebrush shaped blooms in the spring. It does prefer a more acidic soil, but I’m still having good luck with it in my mostly alkaline Indiana garden soil.
Syringa ‘Miss Kim’ (Manchurian Lilac)
Many gardeners wouldn’t think of a lilac as a good substitute for burning bush, because the common lilac doesn’t really have fall foliage color. It just sort of fades away as the powdery mildewed leaves drop to the ground. But ‘Miss Kim’ has beautiful maroon fall foliage and it goes without saying that it also blooms in the spring.
Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ (Virginia Sweetspire)
It seems almost redundant to mention that this shrub, like those I’ve already listed, has white blooms in late spring. Plus it really doesn’t get that big and won’t need much, if any, pruning.
Another alternative for red fall foliage is Vaccinium corymbosum, highbush blueberries, suggested by Dwayne in a comment. I would love to grow blueberries but they need acidic soil, much more acidic than is found in my garden. But wouldn’t it be nice to have red fall foliage and blueberries to eat right in your own garden?
All of the above, except for the blueberries, are growing in my burning bush free garden and so my recommendations are first hand. Many thanks to the Hoosier Gardener who also suggested both Virginia Sweetspire and Fothergilla in her comment the other day.
As to the invasiveness of burning bush, several readers commented that it is not invasive where they are. That may be true, but it is considered invasive in Indiana and several other states. Please check before you plant and consider one of these alternatives!
By the way, the links on the botanical names will take you to the website of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening, an excellent online resource with information on plants for the home landscape if you live in the midwestern part of the United States, and even if you don’t.
And, this, I believe is my final post on burning bush (maybe).