Hey there, friends! This post all started because my husband Doug – who loves to landscape our yard– came home with two butterfly bushes last week. I didn’t think twice before opening my mouth to tell him they’re a non-native invasive species and he should return them.
I’m not sure how I knew that factoid about butterfly bushes, but I probably should have broken the news to him a little more gently because he looked so disappointed.
I can’t blame the guy for bringing this beauty home and for not knowing it’s bad news for our backyard. Until recently, I didn’t know much about invasives either. I thought they were just wild plants by the side of the road that choked out everything around them.
I had no idea that some invasives are sold at our local garden centers and nurseries. And many of them are very showy – which entices us all the more to add them to our landscapes!
Today we’re going to take a closer look at native plants, non-native plants and non-native invasives. I want you to feel confident that you’re choosing landscape plants that will support biodiversity in your area and not harm your native plants. It’s really important!
What is a Native Plant?
Native plants are species that are naturally found in your area and have likely been there for hundreds or even thousands of years. They might be ferns, grasses, perennial and annual wildflowers, trees, shrubs and vines.
Each region has different native plants. These plants have evolved so they thrive in your local soil, weather and climate conditions. Plus they provide habitat and food for native insects and wildlife.
What is a Non-Native Plant?
Non-native plants are those imported from other regions or other countries. They’re sometimes introduced by accident – but either way, they don’t grow naturally in your area. While some non-native plants are fine to grow – others fall into the category of invasives and turn out to be bullies in the garden.
What are Invasive Plants?
Invasive plants are always non-native plants — though not all non-natives are invasive. [It can get a little confusing, so hang in there with me.] Invasives can take over an area and have negative effects on other plants, wildlife, and insects.
Many of them become invasive because their natural predators are nowhere around. Plus they tend to produce an abundance of seeds (or in some cases rhizomes) that spread rapidly. On a large scale, invasives can do a lot of damage and cost millions of dollars annually to control.
Let’s Look at the Benefits of Native Plants
Native plants are easier to grow and cheaper to maintain.
Because native plants have adapted to your local soil conditions, rainfall levels and weather — you won’t need to do excess watering, pruning, pest-control or fertilizing to keep them thriving.
Native plants are better at supporting biodiversity in your area.
Biodiversity means the number and variety of living things in your region. That includes wildlife, birds, butterflies and other pollinators. Many species can only thrive on plants with which they have co-evolved.
One example is the Monarch butterfly. In its larva form as a caterpillar, it can ONLY feed on milkweed. Other insects aren’t quite so picky as the Monarch, but they feed on only a small number of native plants as well.
If you accidentally let non-native invasives take over the native plants in your garden — you could be creating an ecological desert for pollinating insects — which are essential to our food supply.
I had no idea until I started researching this: One of every three bites of food we eat are made possible because of pollinators.
The bottom line is: pollinators and other species need native plants for food, shelter and a place to raise their young. And we need pollinators!
Common Misconceptions About Native Plants
Native plants won’t take over your garden and cause problems. False.
Some native plants do become “aggressive,” which is the distinct gardening term used to describe them. But native plants are never categorized as invasive.
Native plants in Georgia are the same as those in New Hampshire. False.
Native plants vary from region to region and depend largely on climate and soil conditions.
Let’s Take a Closer Look at Non-Native Plants
As mentioned, there’s a difference between non-native plants and non-native invasive plants. Many non-native plants will do fine in your landscape and won’t cause any harm.
A great example of this is the hosta…which many of us grow in our gardens. Hostas are native to northeast Asia (China, Japan, Korea, etc.) Does that make them invasive? Nope.
Here’s a short list of non-native plants that are non-invasive:
- Dwarf Shrub Junipers
- Garden Salvias + many more
These plants are all non-native to the U.S. but are not considered invasive.
That’s why it’s important to do some research before bringing any new plant home. If you’re choosing a non-native plant, you want to be sure it will be well-behaved in your area.
Common Misconceptions about Non-Natives
All non-native plants are bad and should be avoided. False.
This misconception is promoted on some gardening websites, but it’s simply not true. I think because some non-natives are invasive, the idea is just to eliminate them all.
But as we can see from the sample list above, many non-native plants can live harmoniously in your landscape.
What is the Real Harm of Invasive Plants?
I’ve alluded to some of the problems with invasives, but let’s dig a little deeper.
- By taking over a garden or area, invasive plants can weaken or kill native plants. When this happens, it affects all the insects that depend on that plant PLUS the wildlife that depend on those insects. Over time, invasive plants can permanently alter your ecosystem.
- Invasive plants can reduce the number of pollinators, which are key to maintaining our food supply.
- The National Wildlife Federation says invasives have contributed to the decline of 42% of U.S. endangered and threatened species.
- In many cases, invasive plants damage property. Japanese knotweed, for example, produces large seeds that can clog drains and have a negative impact on roads and pipes. There are countless other examples.
Common Misconceptions about Invasive Plants
An invasive plant is invasive everywhere. False.
Non-native invasives in one location can behave differently in a new location. It depends on climate and if natural predators are present to keep the plant in check.
For example, kudzu is invasive in the southern U.S. but has never taken over in northern areas due to colder temperatures.
Top Six Invasive Plants in the U.S.
This list is from James Gagliardi, a horticulturist with the Smithsonian Gardens. He notes that plants with the highest invasive potential are prolific seeders and have the ability to adapt well to a variety of conditions. Check out this link for native alternatives to this list.
- Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)
- Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
- Japanese Barberry )Berbers thunbergii)
- Norway Maple
- English Ivy (Hedera helix)
- Kudzu (Pueraria Montana var.lobata)
There’s some overlap, but you might want to also check Bob Vila’s list of the 15 Worst Invasive Plants in America.
Next Steps: How to Be Sure You’re Not Buying an Invasive
Let’s face it…most of us find joy in visiting our local garden centers and nurseries. We oooh and aaahh over the beautiful plants and get excited about bringing them home.
And now I’m telling you, “not so fast.” Buzzkill, right? But once a plant catches your eye, it should only take a few minutes of research to be sure you’re making a responsible choice.
Here are a few ideas on how to research if a plant is invasive:
1.) Try this database from the University of Georgia: invasiveplantatlas.org. Click on the column headings (subject name) to sort the results alphabetically. Then select the plant in question which brings you to an info page, as well as maps to show where the plant is found. You’ll still need to dig a bit to find out if it’s invasive in your area.
To be honest, I didn’t find this database to be very user-friendly. But I searched long and hard and couldn’t find anything better. [If you find a better invasive plant database, please be sure to let me know in the comments.]
2. Check with the Cooperative Extension in your area.
Your local extension office employees know your area and should be able to steer you away from invasive plants. The Cooperative Extension System (originally part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) was formed to help farmers, but is now a valuable resource for home gardeners, too.
3. Do a google search using a specific question to start. For example, is Butterflybush invasive in New Hampshire? If these results aren’t helpful, then try searching the plant name and “invasive” for starters.
When shopping for landscape plants, the first question to ask is: Is it native or non-native? If it’s a non-native plant, then spend a few minutes to find out if it has the potential to be invasive in your area. If so, don’t bring it home!
Remember…when we choose native and non-native plants that are safe to grow — we are helping biodiversity in our area by supporting lots of native insects, wildlife and pollinators. We should all feel good about that!
Footnote: You might wonder why the butterfly bush is bad for your backyard — especially when there are websites out there still recommending them as a perfect plant to attract butterflies? The short story is that the bush provides tons of nectar for butterflies, but isn’t a good host plant for butterflies to lay eggs or for caterpillars to feed. Plus their prolific spreading habit is not good for your native plants. You can read more here about the butterfly bush here.
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Stay Connected: I hope you found this post helpful. If you have questions or tips to share about landscaping plants, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!