Invasive Plant List: Learn About What Plants Are Aggressive
By: Susan Patterson, Master Gardener
Invasive plants, also known as aggressive garden plants, are simply plants that spread rapidly and are difficult to control. Wide-open spaces, areas where nothing else grows, steep hills, or meadows, are often covered with plants that are known to be invasive. Some invasive plants are also used for erosion control. However, to those with a small, organized garden space, aggressive plants can quickly become a nuisance.
Identifying Invasive Plants
The best way to avoid problems in the landscape is to become familiar with what plants are aggressive. Identifying invasive plants is key to controlling them. Invasive plants seem to swallow everything up in their path. They wind their way around other vegetation, spread wildly, and seem nearly impossible to tame.
Many plants that are known to be aggressive spread by underground rhizomes. Propagation of this nature makes keeping plants confined difficult at best. Other invasive plants are prolific self-seeders. The key to dealing with these plants is to pull out seedlings before they become established.
What Plants are Aggressive?
For a complete invasive plant list for your region, it is best to visit your local Cooperative Extension Office. However, the following popular garden plants may become a problem, especially in a small area, and should be added to your invasive plant list regardless of location:
- Lamb’s ear
- Bee balm
- Bachelor button
- Creeping bellflower
- St. John’s wort
- Money plant
- Snow on the mountain
How to Confine Invasive Plants
Upon indentifying invasive plants in the landscape, you’ll need to know how to confine invasive plants before they become a problem. The best method for controlling aggressive garden plants is through the use of containers or continual pruning.
Confine invasive plants to pots, making sure that the roots do not spread out through drainage holes or out of the sides of the container. Lining containers with weed fabric will help prevent roots from escaping. Weekly weed eating works well for plants that are used as a ground cover, while pruning of vines keeps most other types aggressive garden plants under control.
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12 Invasive Plants (& Native Plants to Grow Instead)
Sadly, plenty of plant nurseries and online shops will eagerly sell you the seeds and starts of invasive plants regardless of their ecological impact.
These cultivars are still widely sold throughout the United States today.
Choose to grow native plants instead – not only are they beautiful and low maintenance, they help support the food web while preserving plant diversity.
1. Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii)
Butterfly bush was introduced to North America around 1900, originally hailing from Japan and China.
It has since escaped cultivation through copious self-seeding dispersed by wind, spreading aggressively in eastern and western states. It is classified as a noxious weed in Oregon and Washington.
Butterfly bush produces fragrant and showy arching panicles with densely clustered tiny flowers. And while it’s true that this shrub provides a source of nectar for pollinators, it is actually detrimental to butterflies.
Although adult butterflies will feed on its nectar, butterfly larvae (caterpillars) cannot use the leaves of the butterfly bush as a food source. Because butterfly bush doesn’t support the entire lifecycle of butterflies, it is quite harmful when it displaces native plants in forests and meadows that caterpillars need to survive.
Grow this instead:
2. Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis)
Wisteria is a gorgeous woody vine that blooms with drooping clusters of bluish purple flowers in spring.
While it looks absolutely stunning growing up walls and other structures, its vines will eventually become heavy and quite massive. The vines can make their way into cracks and crevices, damaging the façades of homes, garages, and sheds.
While gardeners should be prepared for plenty of pruning and maintenance with wisteria, the Chinese variety is especially problematic.
First introduced to the United States in the early 1800s, Chinese wisteria is a very aggressive grower that has invaded the wilderness of the eastern and southern states. Because it grows so fast and becomes so massive, it kills trees and shrubs by girdling them and blocks out sunlight from reaching the forest understory.
If you love the look of wisteria, grow varieties that are indigenous to the region. And when planting, do so away from your home. Train wisteria to grow on freestanding structures like heavy duty pergolas or arbors.
Grow this instead:
3. Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus)
Also known as winged spindle tree and winged euonymus, burning bush is a spreading deciduous shrub with leaves that turn a vibrant scarlet hue in autumn.
A native of northeastern Asia, burning bush was first brought over in the 1860s. Since then it has spread to at least 21 states, establishing itself in forests, fields, and roadsides in dense thickets where it crowds out native plants.
Burning bush is able to spread far and wide because birds and other wildlife disperse seeds from eating the berries it produces.
Grow this instead:
- Eastern Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus)
- Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
- Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica)
- Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)
4. English Ivy (Hedera helix)
Grown as a climbing vine and ground cover, English ivy is a lovely façade green with its lobed deep green foliage. Since it is drought tolerant and adaptable to heavy shade, it is a popular vine that is still widely sold in the US.
English ivy is much better when kept indoors as a houseplant. When planted outdoors, it escapes cultivation with the help of birds that disperse its seeds.
In the wilderness, it grows quickly and aggressively along the ground, choking out native vegetation. Trees in its path become infested, blocking out sunlight from the tree’s foliage, which will slowly kill the tree.
Worse still, English ivy is a carrier of bacterial leaf scorch (Xylella fastidosa), a plant pathogen that can have a devastating impact of many types of trees.
Grow this instead:
- Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
- Cross Vine (Bignonia capreolata)
- Supple-Jack (Berchemia scandens)
- Yellow Jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens)
5. Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii)
Japanese barberry is a small, thorny, deciduous shrub with paddle shaped leaves, often used as a hedge in landscaping. It is available in numerous cultivars with red, orange, purple, yellow, and variegated hues.
Introduced to the US in the 1860s, it has colonized large swaths of the Great Lakes region by adapting to a wide range of habitats including wetlands, woodlands, and open fields.
While Japanese barberry displaces native species, it also changes the chemistry of the soil it grows in by making soils more alkaline and altering soil biota.
Its dense habit creates high humidity within its foliage, providing a safe harbor for ticks. In fact, it has been theorized that the increase in Lyme disease is directly related to the spread of Japanese barberry.
Grow this instead:
- Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
- Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
- Inkberry (Ilex glabra)
- Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
6. Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)
An European transplant introduced to North America in the 1750s, Norway maple has since come to dominate forests in the northern parts of the US and Canada.
Although it was initially prized for its easygoing nature, being tolerant of drought, heat, air pollution, and a wide range of soils, Norway maple has had a dramatic effect on the character and structure of our woodland areas.
Norway maple is a fast grower that freely reseeds itself. Its shallow root system and large canopy means very little can grow beneath it. Blocking sunlight and starving plants for moisture, it overwhelms the habitat and creates forest monocultures.
Especially troubling is it directly threatens the survival of native maple trees, since deer and other critters will avoid eating the leaves of the Norway maple and will consume native species instead.
Grow this instead:
- Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
- Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
- Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
- American Linden (Tilia americana)
- White Ash (Fraxinus americana)
7. Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
Japanese honeysuckle is a fragrant twining vine bearing white to yellow tubular flowers from June to October.
Although lovely, Japanese honeysuckle is an extremely aggressive spreader, creeping in dense mats along the ground and suffocating any trees and shrubs it climbs on. It shades out everything that happens to grow below it.
Initially planted in New York in 1806, Japanese honeysuckle now occupies vast tracts of the Eastern Seaboard.
Plant this instead:
- Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
- Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia tomentosa)
- Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
8. Winter Creeper (Euonymus fortunei)
A dense, woody, broadleaf evergreen, winter creeper is a versatile plant with many habits: mounding shrub, hedge, climbing vine, or creeping ground cover.
Winter creeper readily self-seeds and can be found growing in the wilds in the eastern half of the US. It invades forest areas that have been opened up due to fires, insects, or wind.
Because it vigorously spreads across the ground, it chokes out low growing plants and seedlings. Clinging to the bark of trees, the higher it grows, the farther its seeds can be carried by the wind.
Grow this instead:
- Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)
- Strawberry Bush (Euonymus americanus)
- Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata)
- Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina)
9. Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)
Autumn olive, or autumnberry, is an attractive sprawling shrub with thorny stems and silvery green elliptical leaves. Indigenous to Eastern Asia, it was first brought to the US in the 1830s to rewild and restore old mining sites.
At one time, it was advised to grow this shrub for its many positive attributes, including erosion control, as a windbreak, and for its edible fruit. Autumn olive is also a nitrogen fixer that thrives in barren landscapes.
Despite its good qualities, autumn olive has since invaded many areas of the eastern and central US, forming dense, impenetrable thickets that displaces native plants.
It has been able to spread so successfully because it grows quickly and reproduces via root suckers and self-seeding. A single autumn olive plant can produce 80 pounds of fruit (that contain roughly 200,000 seeds) each season.
Grow this instead:
- Eastern Baccharis (Baccharis halimifolia)
- Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
- Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
- Wild Plum (Prunus americana)
10. Border Privet (Ligustrum obtusifolium)
Commonly cultivated in the northern parts of the US as a hedge and privacy screen, border privet is a fast growing, deciduous shrub that hails from Asia.
Border privet generously self-seeds each season and is tolerant of wide range of soils and drought. It has escaped from home gardens in the Midwest to form dense thickets that crowd out native species.
Grow this instead:
- American Holly (Ilex opaca)
- Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
- American Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)
- Canadian Yew (Taxus canadensis)
11. Maiden Silvergrass (Miscanthus sinensis)
Maiden silvergrass, also known as Chinese or Japanese silvergrass, is a clump forming plant that provides color and texture in every season.
Freely self-seeding, it has spread to more than 25 states through Central and Eastern US, and can be found as far west as California.
It is also highly flammable, and increases the fire risk of any area it invades.
Grow this instead:
- Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii)
- Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix)
- Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum)
- Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
12. Golden Bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea)
Golden bamboo is a vigorous, fast growing evergreen that turns yellow as its tall poles mature. It is frequently used as a hedge or privacy screen in home gardens.
A “running” type of bamboo, it reproduces through underground rhizomes that can emerge from the soil quite a distance from the parent plant.
Once golden bamboo is planted at a site, it is very difficult to remove. It can take years of repeatedly digging up the root system to fully eradicate it.
Brought to the US from China in the 1880s as an ornamental, golden bamboo has since invaded several southern states by forming dense monocultures that displace native plants.
Invasive plant or aggressive? There is a difference
What is the difference between an invasive plant and an aggressive plant?
Sometimes gardeners use the terms interchangeably, but aggressive and invasive aren’t the same thing.
An aggressive plant is one that spreads faster than preferred, or into an area of your garden where it is unwanted, according to the Chicago Botanic Garden.
But what one gardener views as an aggressive plant might not be viewed that way by another gardener. As the Chicago Botanic Garden points out, a plant may be aggressive in one area of a garden or neighborhood and well behaved in another.
One year I was at a plant exchange and a gardener pointed out one of the offerings called sweet woodruff, which is a groundcover for shady areas. “I wouldn’t plant that,” she said. “It’s too aggressive.”
I was surprised by her remark because I had gotten that plant the previous year and it didn’t come back.
There are a couple of things that do spread aggressively in my yard: mint and lily of the valley. I am sure there are many other gardeners who feel the same way I do, but there may be other gardeners who are delighted with those plants because they fill in a trouble spot in their yard.
If you don’t want aggressive plants to spread into your lawn or other parts of your garden, grow them in pots to keep them contained. You can even sink the pot into your garden bed if that is the look you want. Roots might spread out through the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot, but the pot will definitely slow down the spread and make those aggressive plants more manageable.
Lesser celandine is a pretty little plant, but it can destroy your lawn and invade wild spaces. This is on the list of invasive plants compiled by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko
An invasive plant, according the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, is a species that is nonnative to a particular ecosystem, and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.
An invasive species that can harm humans is giant hogweed, which can cause severe burns to your skin. Lesser celandine can not only take over your lawn, it can disrupt the ecosystem in natural areas.
If a plant is on the DEC’s list of invasive plants, it is invasive. If it’s not on the list, it’s not an invasive plant in New York State.
Your Guide to an Invasive Plant
While most people wouldn’t want to plant invasive plants, they do have their benefits. Their spreading capabilities are the perfect solution to filling in blank spaces in the yard or to create fence trees for a living border wall to give you privacy.
For example, bindweed or Morning Glory is quite pretty and can cover a trellis in no time. However, if it grows too aggressively, you need a way to get rid of bindweed without harming the surrounding landscape.
One plant you do not want to have in your yard at all is poison ivy. Getting rid of poison ivy plants can be challenging, as many people are not only sensitive to touch the plants but even be near them. If you have poison ivy, use natural remedies or a commercial herbicide to eradicate this plant right away.
While there are some people who find dandelions attractive, and even use them medicinally and in salads for a unique taste, most people don’t want them in their yards. Get rid of dandelions with home remedies or commercial herbicides to prevent them from spreading.
When Do Invasive Plants Start to Grow?
You’ll run across invasive ground cover plants almost as soon as you start your garden. Invasive plant species are stubborn and tough to get rid of, and many of them already live in your garden soil and are just waiting for fertilizer and water to make them sprout.
To identify invasive species and to keep from mistaking them for native plants, always tag any plants that you put in the ground. This allows you to know by looking at it whether a plant is an unwanted plant like Creeping Charlie weed or not.
To get a better idea of when you should start looking for types of invasive vines and other weeds, reach out to your local agriculture agency or nearby national park. They are gold mines of information and can give you all of the information you require about local weeds and invasive species that frequent your area.
And, they’ll be happy to assist you in selecting plants that can hold their own against the interloper weeds. Your agriculture agency can also give you an invasive species definition relevant to your area.
How Can I Get Rid of the Most Invasive Plant Species?
The way you attack invasive weeds depends on the type of plants with which you’re dealing. Small weeds that grow in bare patches of the garden differ from trees that grow fast, and your method of removing them has to change, as well.
Again, your local agriculture agency or forest service has essential information on keeping invasive species at bay. If you have questions, you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to them.
There are plenty of commercial weed killers out there, and many of them will suit your needs, but only use as much force as possible to remove invasive plants. Overkill can result in damage to plants that belong in the garden, so before reaching for the industrial-strength herbicides, try a little elbow grease and effort.
An old-fashioned round of weeding every week not only keeps your garden gorgeous but also allows you to engage in a peaceful and contemplative task. Weeding might seem like a chore, but you’ll be surprised at how much you start looking forward to it.
How Do I Keep My Invasive Weeds From Coming Back?
Regular attention is the key to making sure that the most invasive plant species are discouraged from making repeat appearances. Take time each week to walk around the garden, and if you find an infestation of some sort, immediately resolve it.
Some beneficial plant species such as coral bells and plantain lilies actively discourage weed growth, so plant a few around the borders of the garden and wherever you’ve encountered a weed infestation previously.
If a weed infestation is too bad or comes back too regularly, try killing off anything in the soil to eradicate lingering invasive weeds that might be there. Once the planting season finishes, remove remaining vegetation and cover bare earth with a transparent plastic sheet, pegging it down on the corners to prevent it from blowing away.
The idea is to prevent any nutrients or water from reaching anything in the soil and to magnify the sunlight’s effect on the ground. Remove the sheet after about six weeks. This solution works well as a homemade weed killer safe for grass around the perimeter of the area with weeds.
One of the most popular evergreen climbers in the horticultural trade, English ivy forms dense carpets in both the canopy and on the forest floor once it escapes the garden’s perimeter. The native groundcover known as Allegheny spurge is an excellent alternative to this invasive vine.
Bright and breezy and easy to grow, it’s no wonder garden loosestrife is a die-hard favorite amongst gardeners. This beloved Eurasian perennial is unfortunately more than happy to grow in places it isn’t deliberately planted, particularly in wet habitats like marshlands and along streams.
Invasive and Aggressive Garden Plants
Not all garden plants behave themselves. If not handled properly, their bad growth habits can quickly get out of control. While that beautiful plant may have captured your eye, it’s important to take note of its growing characteristics before planting it in the garden. Beware of plants labeled as rampant growers, fast spreading, noxious, prolific, vigorous, creeping, robust, or naturalizing. These are all red flags to possible garden bullies that may likely take over your otherwise well-behaved garden.
An important note to keep in mind is that not all of these bullies are created equal. Some plants may be very aggressive, freely growing in areas where we would rather they not while others are more invasive and can actually over run or take over garden areas. Aggressive garden plants can usually be tamed by planting them in containers or bottomless pots. Good examples include members of the mint (Mentha) family, English ivy (Hedera helix), periwinkle (Vinca minor), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and various bamboo species.
Invasive garden plants, on the other hand, are much more difficult to contain and control. In some cases, these plants actually require total removal in order to eradicate their invading growth. Some common plants that fall into this category include lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), bugle plant or ajuga (Ajuga reptans), Peruvian lily (Alstromaria aurea), and various violet (Viola) species.
Even though a plant may be deemed aggressive or invasive, its actual growing behavior depends on the region in which it’s grown as well as the soil, light exposure, and moisture levels. For example, many people find that ajuga species can be quite aggressive or even invasive in the garden. While they certainly grow and spread quickly, making excellent ground cover plants, I have not found them to be too intrusive in my garden. Of course, I also keep them in an area where they receive quite a bit of sun, which may inhibit some of their growing characteristics.
The next time an interesting plant catches your eye, pay careful attention to its growth habit. Recognizing particular red flags can help determine whether a plant is a good candidate for your garden. But don’t be alarmed if you find something that may have aggressive tendencies. In all likelihood you can still enjoy the plant by growing it in a container instead or simply place it in an area where its vigorous growth will not become a factor.