In the southeastern United States, a naturally rich diversity of native plants makes the ecosystem healthy, vibrant, and quite beautiful. However, invasive plants are an extremely common sight.
The warm climate and abundant rainfall allow many non-native plants to thrive in this region. When invasive plants take over, they compete with native plants and can gradually choke the native species out.
Some non-native plants are wonderful additions to the garden or landscape. They may look great, be easy to grow, and have other desirable attributes. But when they take over your garden, they become a nuisance that competes with your other plants. If they spread into the surrounding landscape, they threaten the local environmental balance.
As a gardener, you can choose which plants to grow in your yard. Learn to identify some of the more common invasive plants in your region to avoid them. Many invasive species are readily available from garden centers or seed companies. They may look appealing when small and well-contained in a pot, but do yourself a favor and choose something non-invasive instead.
Create your own healthy, colorful, and well-balanced landscape. Use an assortment of native plants or combine natives with other non-invasive species. There are plenty of beautiful and well-behaved flowers, ground covers, shrubs, and trees that you can easily grow.
The following are 28 Southeastern U.S. invasive plants you should avoid, plus suggestions for alternative plants to grow instead.
Spicebush is a non-invasive alternative to Autumn olive.
Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is a medium-sized deciduous shrub from eastern Asia. It has fragrant spring-blooming flowers and produces clusters of small reddish fruits in summer and autumn.
It has been widely used as a hedge plant for its ornamental appeal and ability to grow densely. Birds eat the fruits and spread these plants into neighboring fields and woodlands, growing into dense colonies that compete with native vegetation.
Alternative: Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a small to medium-sized native shrub. This plant has fragrant leaves, showy yellow spring-blooming flowers, small red fruits in fall, and beautiful fall foliage in golden yellow.
Brazilian peppertree has leathery, pinnately compound leaves that give off a potent fragrance.
The Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolia) is a broadleaf evergreen shrub native to South America. This plant has leathery, pinnately compound leaves with a distinctive pungent scent and clusters of bright red fruits.
These plants have invaded several southern states, growing into dense thickets that compete with native vegetation. They are commonly seen in disturbed habitats, along roadways, wetland borders, and in fields.
Alternative: If you’re looking for a smaller ornamental tree for a moist, partially shaded area, try growing the native sassafras (Sassafras albidum). This plant has unique mitten-like leaves with a pleasant fragrance when crushed. During fall, sassafras leaves turn beautiful shades of yellow, orange, and red.
Birds feast on the bush honeysuckle’s small red fruits, dispersing the seeds far from the parent plants.
Bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) is native to Europe and Asia. These shrubby bushes leaf out very early in springtime and produce an abundance of fragrant white or creamy-colored flowers.
Bush honeysuckle has been used as a landscaping plant, particularly in hedgerows, and for erosion control. This plant grows quickly and spreads by root suckers and seeds.
Birds eat the small red fruits and distribute the seeds far from the parent plants. Bush honeysuckle invades forests, forest edges, and parklands, creating dense thickets that reduce native species diversity.
Alternative: Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) is a showy native shrub that would spice up your landscape. It produces showy, spiky white clusters of flowers, attracting butterflies and other pollinators. Sweet pepperbush thrives in partial shade and would make a great hedge plant.
Opting for buddleja over native species can potentially harm butterfly populations.
Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) is a deciduous shrub native to Asia. It produces numerous showy pink or purple flower clusters that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. While it’s true that butterflies like these flowers, this plant doesn’t provide a food source for butterfly larvae.
If people routinely choose this plant over native species, it can negatively impact butterfly populations. Butterflies need their host plants to reproduce. Butterfly bushes also self-seed and can spread beyond your garden, invading nearby woodlands, fencerows, and fields.
Alternative: Would you like to attract butterflies to your garden? Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is my all-time top recommendation for butterflies. Pollinators of all types love the beautiful flowers, and milkweed is the larval host plant for the monarch butterfly caterpillar.
The serviceberry, a petite native tree, is a better alternative to Bradford or Callery pear.
Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), also called Bradford pear, has become extremely widespread throughout the southeastern United States. This invasive tree is from Asia and has been used as an ornamental landscaping plant because it grows fast and tolerates various conditions.
Callery pear trees are notable for their intense shows of white blossoms each spring. Unfortunately, this plant has escaped cultivation and spreads readily when animals eat the fruits and disperse the seeds into nearby parks, roadsides, and forested edges.
Alternative: Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is a small native tree with beautiful flowers that pollinators love. At a glance, you might mistake a serviceberry in full bloom for a Callery pear, but don’t worry, this tree isn’t invasive and won’t take over your landscape.
Chinaberry’s rapid growth and adaptability have made it an invasive species.
Chinaberry (Melia azedarach) is a tree native to Asia. This tree was introduced as an ornamental landscaping plant, known for its showy flowers and fruits and attractive fall foliage. Unfortunately, this plant is aggressive and invasive.
It grows quickly, spreads rapidly, and thrives in many conditions, making it the perfect weed. Where it escapes cultivation, it creates dense stands, shading out understory plants and competing with native trees.
Alternative: American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a native shrub with beautifully showy pinkish purple fruits. American beautyberry grows well in various conditions, including full sun and partial shade, and it loves moist soils. Birds feast on the fruits that linger on the bushes well into the fall.
Dodder’s rapid self-seeding capability enables the formation of increasingly larger colonies annually.
Dodder (Cuscuta japonica) is an herbaceous vine from Asia. It is a parasitic vine that invades the root systems of its host plants. If it finds a suitable host, it penetrates the host root system and can grow to maturity. As it grows, it develops long, thin stems that twine around any nearby vegetation and cover it with distinctive filamentous stem strands.
Dodder reproduces rapidly by self-seeding, allowing it to form larger and larger colonies each year. Although it is a fairly recent introduction to the United States, it spreads quickly in the South.
Alternative: Climbing aster (Ampleaster carolinianus) is an herbaceous perennial wildflower native to the southeastern United States. This plant grows vigorously and will form large clusters but is not invasive. Climbing aster blooms with pinkish-purple flowers from late summer into fall, attracting many late-season pollinators.
Although invasive, English ivy is still commonly and widely planted as a ground cover.
English Ivy (Hedera helix) is extremely common in urban landscaping, around old homesteads, and trailing through woodlands throughout the southeastern United States. This familiar landscaping plant is still commonly and widely planted as a ground cover.
Once established, however, it easily escapes into neighboring woodlands, climbing up trees, over walls, and trying to cover buildings. It spreads by vigorous vegetative growth and root sprouts while birds eat the fruits and transport seeds farther afield.
Alternative: If you’re looking for an interesting vine, consider growing the native crossvine (Bignonia capreolata). This plant makes an effective ground cover, but it prefers to climb on a trellis, fence, or arbor. The showy trumpet-like flowers attract pollinators and hummingbirds.
This buttercup outcompetes native species, posing a significant ecological threat.
Fig buttercup (Ficaria verna) is a flowering perennial native to Europe. Fig buttercup was introduced as an ornamental landscaping plant but has since become invasive. It has glossy, heart-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers that appear in spring.
Plants spread quickly by underground tubers, creating a dense ground cover. Any tubers that escape captivity can start new colonies. This plant can colonize woodlands, parklands, and moist riparian areas, outcompeting native species.
Alternative: If you want a cheerful yellow flower to brighten your landscape, try the native black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Black-eyed Susan can be grown as an annual or short-lived perennial that blooms reliably each summer, attracting plenty of pollinators.
While beautiful, Japanese honeysuckle spreads easily.
Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is a vigorously climbing vine from eastern Asia. It leafs out very early in spring and blooms during summer with fragrant creamy white flowers. Japanese honeysuckle is a familiar sight growing along fences and climbing up small trees and shrubs. It spreads easily by root suckers and self-seeding and can strange small trees as it climbs.
Alternative: Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is a great alternative. This beautiful vine is native to the southeastern United States. It blooms throughout the summer with showy, tubular, red flowers that hummingbirds adore. It grows vigorously where you plant it but won’t spread beyond that location or try to take over your yard.
A notorious invasive plant, kudzu is prevalent across the southeastern United States.
Kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobara) is one of the most familiar and widespread invasive plants in the southeastern United States. Kudzu is a vigorous twining vine, growing up to 100 feet long and covering anything in its path, including trees, shrubs, powerlines, fences, and buildings.
It was imported from Asia as an ornamental plant known for its fragrant purple flowers. Kudzu spreads quickly and aggressively by vigorous root suckers and self-seeding. It has naturalized and is now listed as an invasive species in most southeastern states.
Alternative: Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is a native vine with many benefits. This plant is easy to grow, has spectacularly beautiful purple and white flowers that attract pollinators, and is a butterfly larval host plant.
Native to China, leatherleaf mahonia isn’t as quick-spreading but is still considered invasive.
Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) is an evergreen shrub native to China. It has been used as a landscaping and hedgerow plant for its evergreen foliage and dramatic yellow flowers. It is tolerant of sun and shade and has invaded forested areas of the southeastern United States.
While it hasn’t spread as much as some invasive plants, it does have the potential to increase in numbers, so it’s best not to plant the leatherleaf mahonia and grow something else instead.
Alternative: The American holly (Ilex opaca) is a broadleaf evergreen tree native to the eastern United States. This shrubby tree has distinctive leathery leaves and attractive red berries that persist into the winter months as a food source for hungry birds.
This Asian ornamental tree is found in wildlands and along roads across the eastern United States.
Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), also known as the silk tree, is an ornamental tree native to Asia from Iran through China and Japan. This plant is widely used in landscaping and is best known for its showy leaves and fluffy pink flowers that bloom in mid-summer.
After flowering, it develops long, dark, bean-like seed pods, distributing seeds around the tree. These plants are now commonly found in natural areas and along roadways throughout the eastern United States. They spread easily and grow quickly, outcompeting native vegetation and shading out understory plants.
Alternative: If you’d like an attractive small tree with showy pink flowers, look no further than the native redbud (Cercis canadensis). Redbud trees are easy to grow and burst into full bloom early each spring. The plethora of pinkish-purple flowers cover the branches with early-season color.
This fast-growing rose is a vector for rose rosette disease.
Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is a thorny, shrubby rose plant native to Japan and Korea. This plant blooms in summer and is covered with showy pink or white flowers. It grows into dense thorny thickets of many-branching stems, often seeming to climb along fences and neighboring vegetation.
Once established, it continues to spread vigorously by vegetative growth and self-seeding, particularly as birds and small mammals eat the fruits and help distribute the seeds. Multiflora rose is tolerant of sun, partial shade, and various soil conditions. Unfortunately, it’s also a vector for rose rosette disease. Paired with its aggressive nature, this plant is particularly dangerous for us as gardeners.
Alternative: If you want to grow a rose, choose a beautiful variety of shrub rose (Rosa species other than R. multiflora) instead. These lovely roses come in many sizes and spectacular flower colors. Shrub roses are surprisingly easy to grow and won’t take over your yard like an invasive multiflora rose plant.
Heavenly bamboo plants primarily spread through bird-mediated seed dispersal, forming dense clusters as they grow.
Nandina (Nandina domestica), also called heavenly bamboo, is a common ornamental landscaping plant. Nandina comes from Asia and is tolerant of many light and soil conditions.
This plant is easily recognized by its semi-woody upright stems, compound leaflets, and clusters of small bright red fruits. Plants form dense clumps and spread by seed, especially as birds eat the fruits and distribute them into nearby woodlands and urban landscapes.
Alternative: Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) is an herbaceous perennial native to North America. This plant blooms in the springtime with very showy, spiky, finger-like clusters of white flowers. It likes moist soil and appreciates some shade in warmer climates.
Native to China and Japan, Oriental bittersweet is a woody vine capable of reaching 60 feet long.
Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is a woody vine native to China and Japan. This plant can grow to 60 feet long and climbs anything it encounters. It will climb trees and shrubs, squeezing and strangling them as it grows.
Oriental bittersweet has been used as a landscaping plant, known for its evergreen foliage and bright red-orange fruits that persist from fall into the winter months. It spreads primarily by seed when birds eat the fruits and deposit them into nearby woodlands, along fencerows and forest edges.
Alternative: Are you looking for an attractive climber to grow along a trellis, wall, or fence? Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris) is a climbing vine native to Asia, but it is not invasive. Climbing hydrangea blooms in late spring or early summer with fragrant clusters of white flowers.
This fast-growing vine crowds out native plants.
Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis glandulosa var. brevipedunculata), or Amur pepper vine, was imported from Asia as an ornamental vine. It closely resembles a grapevine, but the fruits are somewhat glossy looking and brightly colored shades of blue, pink, and purple.
Plants spread rapidly because birds and mammals eat the fruits and distribute the seeds to nearby natural areas. Porcelain berry can form dense carpets of vegetation that cover and shade out native plants.
Alternative: If you are looking for a grape-like plant, try the Muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia). These grape vines are native to the southern United States, are easy to grow, and produce abundant edible fruits.
The princess tree stands out in spring but displaces native tree species by self-seeding.
The princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa) is a fast-growing ornamental tree native to Asia. It has very large leaves and showy bunches of large, tubular, pale purple or white flowers that bloom in the springtime.
Princess tree is most visible in spring, blooming along highways and forest edges. It spreads rapidly by self-seeding, becoming numerous in some areas and displacing native trees and shrubs.
Alternative: The weeping cherry (Prunus pendula) is a showy ornamental tree. Before these trees leaf out for the summer, they are covered with a proliferation of showy pink blossoms that line their gracefully weeping branches, making this a popular landscaping tree.
In the southern regions, privet remains partially evergreen during most of the winter.
Privet (Ligustrum vulgare) is a small, shrubby tree native to Europe, northern Africa, and Asia. In the South, privet stays semi-evergreen through most of the winter. It blooms in springtime with fragrant clusters of tiny white blossoms.
This plant will grow just about anywhere and has widely naturalized throughout the Southeast. Privet is a common sight growing in urban yards, parklands, woodlands, and disturbed areas. It forms dense colonies through root suckers and spreads rapidly because birds eat its small, abundant fruits and distribute the seeds, outcompeting native vegetation.
Alternative: If you want a small ornamental tree, try the native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). Flowering dogwood has beautiful, showy white flowers. This tree attracts both birds and butterflies.
The invasive and widespread nature of shrubby lespedeza is particularly evident in the southeastern United States.
Shrubby lespedeza (Lespedeza bicolor) is a semi-woody perennial native to Asia. This plant has three-part leaflets and bright pink pea-like flowers. It spreads quickly by rhizomes and self-seeding.
Once established in an area, shrubby lespedeza creates dense thickets of vegetation, shading out low-growing plants and competing with native species. This plant is widespread and invasive throughout the southeastern United States.
Alternative: Are you looking for a showy wildflower in the pea family? Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) is an excellent choice. This spectacular spring-blooming perennial has stunningly large spikes of purple pea-like flowers. It is also a butterfly caterpillar host plant.
Sweet Autumn Clematis
Clematis terniflora rapidly spreads and vigorously self-seeds.
Sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) is a flowering vine native to Japan. It has been used as a landscaping plant because it is easy to grow and has beautiful flowers. In late summer, sweet autumn clematis explodes into bloom with lots of small, snowy-white flowers.
The flowers are followed by ornamental seedheads full of fluffy, windblown seeds. Unfortunately, the plants spread rapidly by self-seeding, thus creating a mat of leafy growth that covers native vegetation as the vines climb.
Alternative: Woodbine (Clematis virginiana) is a native clematis that is extremely similar to the sweet autumn clematis. Woodbine also blooms in late summer with many showy, small white flowers that attract pollinators. This is a great plant to grow on a trellis, fence, or arbor.
Tree of Heaven
The tree of heaven is a popular ornamental but outcompetes native plants.
Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is a fast-growing tree native to China. It has very long, pinnately compound leaves, and its clusters of yellow flowers bloom in the summer.
The tree of heaven was introduced as an ornamental tree but now proliferates in natural settings, outcompeting native plant communities. This tree spreads quickly to colonize a landscape with multiple root suckers and by self-seeding.
Alternative: If you are looking for a tree with pretty foliage, consider the bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis). This native tree makes an excellent shade tree with beautiful yellow fall foliage.
This hyacinth variety proliferates swiftly through the division of its buoyant air-filled bulbs.
Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is an invasive water plant widely used as an ornamental. It is a floating plant with very showy purple flower spikes that bloom in the summer. It has been introduced into natural waterways and has become extremely invasive.
Water hyacinth spreads rapidly by bulb division from its floating air-filled bulbs, eventually filling in bodies of slow-moving water, choking out native vegetation, and clogging slow-moving and still waters.
Alternative: The blue flag iris (Iris virginica) is a moisture-loving wildflower native to the eastern United States. It is an excellent plant for growing in moist soils, even at the edge of lakes and ponds. The showy purple flowers bloom in early summer.
The multiplication of water lettuce can lead to the complete coverage of ponds, lakes, and slow-moving rivers.
Water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) is an aquatic plant that floats on the water’s surface. It was introduced as an ornamental plant for lakes and ponds but has invaded natural waterways.
It has floating rosettes of soft, fuzzy leaves and tiny white flowers. As plants multiply, they can completely cover the surface of ponds, lakes, and slow-moving rivers, shading out native plants, competing for space, and clogging waterways.
Alternative: Are you looking for an attractive water plant for your pond or lake? White water lily (Nymphaea odorata) is a native water lily with large, showy white flowers. This plant roots on the bottom of shallow ponds or along lake edges. The flowers are fragrant and bloom in the summer months, attracting pollinators.
Winged Burning Bush
In the autumn, the winged burning bush is beautiful, but there are better alternatives.
Winged burning bush (Euonymus alatus), also called winged spindle tree, is a deciduous shrub from Asia. The winged burning bush was introduced as a landscaping plant for its brilliant red fall foliage. Unfortunately, it has spread and naturalized in many areas, competing with native plants.
During most of the growing season, it appears as a simple, dense, green shrub commonly planted in hedgerows. In the fall, it produces bright red fruits that birds eat and spread.
Alternative: Are you looking for a good shrub for a hedgerow? Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) is a beautiful native shrub. Fragrant sumac looks wonderful in the fall with exceptionally colorful fall foliage.
Euonymus fortunei is vigorous, fast-spreading, and invasive.
Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) is a vigorous vine native to eastern Asia. You can recognize it by its evergreen foliage that commonly creeps along the ground or climbs up fences, trees, and street signs.
In the fall and winter, it displays small pinkish-red seed capsules that burst open, spreading seeds around the area. It tolerates sun, shade, and a variety of soil conditions. This versatility allows it to invade forest edges and parklands.
Alternative: Are you looking for a non-invasive ground cover? The three-leaved stonecrop (Sedum ternatum) is a great choice. This plant is native to the eastern United States and grows well in varied conditions. The leaves are thick and succulent-like, staying evergreen in warmer climates.
The Chinese wisteria remains a popular choice today but can rapidly spread and take over an area.
Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) is a familiar vine native to China. It’s in wide use today as a landscape plant. It earned popularity for its large, showy clusters of fragrant purple flowers.
This plant is extremely fast-growing and aggressive, spreading quickly by root suckers and self-seeding. Wisteria causes problems as it creates dense carpets of vegetation, completely covering anything in its path, including trees, shrubs, and power lines.
Alternative: Do you love wisteria? Choose the native species American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) instead. American wisteria closely resembles the Chinese wisteria but is not as aggressive and not considered an invasive species.
Yellow Groove Bamboo
The dense growth pattern of yellow groove bamboo crowds out native flora and displaces native species.
Yellow groove bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata) is a giant grass from China. While gardeners love it as a privacy hedge, it’s extremely difficult to control.
The tall, hollow stems spread rapidly by underground rhizomes, creeping outwards into ever-expanding thickets. Stems grow closely together, crowding out native vegetation and displacing native species.
Alternative: Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) doesn’t closely resemble bamboo, but it is a tall grass native to the eastern United States. Indian grass grows three to five feet tall and handles dry, sunny conditions very well. By late summer, the feathery seedheads blowing in the breeze give a tallgrass prairie-like feel to the landscape.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you have invasive plant species already growing in your yard, this can make gardening a little more complicated. If you want to keep them, the invasive species will be constantly trying to take over, and you will be constantly battling them. If you remove the invasive plants, you will have to put in some time and effort, but once they’re gone, and you will have more space to grow other plants that are easier to manage.
Invasive species all have some similar characteristics.
- Not native to a particular area
- Grow fast
- Spread quickly
- Aggressive use of space, monopolizing resources
- Difficult to eradicate
- Competes with native species
- Cause potential harm to other native plants and animals
There are plenty of attractive and useful non-native plants that you can easily grow in your home landscape. Native plants, however, offer some consistent advantages.
- Easy to grow within their native range
- Don’t require extra fertilizers or pesticides
- Generally don’t require extra watering
- Provide best food sources for wildlife and birds
- Perfect pollinator-friendly plants for both adults and larvae (as host plants)
- Plus, they’re beautiful!
Anyone familiar with gardening in the Southeast has probably already come across many invasive plant species. If you are trying to garden with invasive plants, however, you will face many challenges.
It is much easier to garden when the plants you want to grow don’t want to take over your entire garden. There are some wonderful alternatives to invasive plant species. Non-invasive plants are easier to grow and better behaved. Plus, they are just as beautiful and much better for the natural ecosystem!