7 Invasive Plants to Avoid: Plant These Natives Instead

I consult with homeowners every day on what to plant to provide privacy, curb appeal, and for biodiversity and ecology. I look, listen, take photos, and ask questions. Most have issues with standing rainwater and erosion caused by water flowing down a slope. Many are looking to attract and feed wild birds (or if they haven’t thought of it, I’ll suggest it – especially when I observe bird feeders, birdhouses, and birdbaths). And a surprising percentage have inherited non-native invasive plants from previous owners – or present neighbors. So they’re tasked with the removal in order to reclaim their real estate for planting beneficial trees, shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers.

The most frequently spotted invasives I see in home landscapes are English Ivy, Bamboo, Mimosa Tree, Nandina, Privet, Bradford Pear, and Mahonia. Let’s take them one at a time:

English Ivy (Hedera Helix) – this one has been widely deployed in the Piedmont as a groundcover, especially on difficult slopes. It is highly effective there, but breeds mosquitoes and will climb and smother trees, your house, and slow-moving children. Difficult to remove, it must be pulled – and then when it resprouts, because it will – sprayed with herbicide. No responsible garden center should be selling it, except maybe as a houseplant where it can be more easily tamed. Instead of this stubborn thug – plant the native Pachysandra procumbens, an evergreen, shady lawn alternative.

Pachysandra procumbens
Pachysandra procumbens at Biltmore – photo by Jim Robbins

Running Bamboo (Bambusa sp., Phyllostachys sp., and others) – Unfortunately planted as a fast-growing screen, this one respects no property lines. Bamboo can be seen in several locations around Greensboro where it has escaped a well-meaning homeowner’s yard into public spaces, rights of way, under the neighbors’ fences, and just anywhere it darn well pleases. The new canes spread rapidly by way of underground rhizomes – and stopping or removing them is difficult but not impossible. It is a BIG job that seems almost futile. There is a company in Chapel Hill that consults specifically on bamboo removal. Consider planting Hemlock as an alternative. Carolina Hemlock and Eastern Hemlock can both take moist soil and won’t get away from you.

Carolina Hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana)
Hemlock’s fine texture combines nicely with broadleaf shrubs like Calycanthus.

Mimosa Tree (Albizia julibrissin) – “Oh, but it’s so pretty!” Ah, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder – this one moves fast, spreading in multiple ways – root sprouts, birds, wind, fill dirt, and moving water. Seeds deposited by birds are responsible for many of these spreaders – as birds perch on fence lines or tree limbs, they deposit the seed below and voila! – a new plant is born. These plants spread so rapidly that they displace good native plants as they outcompete them for resources. Please do your part to remove them as soon as they are recognizable. Shockingly, some nurseries still sell these in our area. A much better choice is our native Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus).

Fringe Tree photo courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden

Nandina (Nandina domestica) – This might be confusing, since Guilford Garden Center does sell some nandinas – but the varieties we sell are bred to not produce berries, which is how the species spreads. When I see even one nandina in a home landscape, I’ll quickly scan for more – and there they are, right on the fence line. Yep, birds sit there and pop them out. I do have a family heirloom nandina in my yard, but I remove the berry clusters when they ripen around Thanksgiving – they’re great for holiday decorations! And I stay vigilant for any that pop up thanks to the birds.

Mahonia 'Soft Caress'. Grows to 3 ft. tall and 3-4 ft ...
Though not native here, Soft Caress Mahonia is a texture champ for the shade garden.

Privet (Ligustrum sinense) – Privet was commonly planted as a privacy hedge 30 years ago, before we knew better. Now we can observe it running rampant in undisturbed wooded areas and open fields throughout Guilford and surrounding areas. Take a hike on any of the Greensboro watershed trails and you’ll spot it trying to take over. And that fact really highlights why we must remove all of these thug plants from our landscapes – some might reason that they’ll keep their ivy or nandina under control, but it isn’t just about that one plant in the yard – it’s where and how it travels and displaces good natives that insects and other invertebrates need to eat and to complete their life cycles – these are the building blocks of our food web. A better choice is Rhododendron – evergreen and flowering!

What to look for – invasive privet is everywhere! Photo courtesy texasinvasives.org

Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’) – Another popular tree that was recommended decades ago is the Bradford Pear. Today most homeowners will tell you they removed it because it split in a storm, having weak branch angles. And yes, that is a good reason to avoid it, but WAY more urgent is the need to avoid how this China native cross-pollinates with Callery pear and spreads everywhere it can – just take a drive out around Piedmont Triad International Airport when these guys are blooming and you’ll note that it has become the dominant species in open fields along Fleming and Lewiston roads in particular. Thankfully, it has finally fallen out of the nursery trade locally. Pear is beautiful in bloom, but why not get a fruiting pear that’s well-behaved?

broke tree limb
Poor branching leads to storm damage with Bradfords, and their crossbred cousins are thorny and difficult to remove. Remove and replace with fruit trees for your family or wildlife.

Mahonia (Mahonia bealei) – This tall shrub with spiny leaves and spikes of yellow flowers blooms in winter and was a favored shade plant for the back of the border until it was recognized as moving through both suckers and berries. So look around – yours probably has offspring in nearby woodlands. Instead, choose Soft Caress Mahonia, Indigo Flair, or one of the Mahonia x media cultivars.

Mahonia bealei in bloom and in berry

There is a group of volunteers removing non-native invasives from the Bog Garden at Benjamin Park in Greensboro – a wonderfully wild place at 1101 Hobbs Road, (adjacent to Friendly Shopping Center) that features a natural wetland and invites exploration with an elevated boardwalk, waterfall, and nesting Barred Owls each spring – absolutely a naturalist and photographer’s delight. Over time, invasives from nearby neighborhoods have threatened the wetland ecosystem and crowded out native flora that feeds birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Kudos to the collaboration between the groups getting it done! Let’s all help get it done in our own backyards.

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