Plant This, Not That: Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants

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When my family moved into a new house in the spring of 2005, the only plants growing in the yard were a rhododendron by the front door and a few daffodils and ferns scattered about. I was delighted to see a stunning perennial appear a month later.

Being only a beginner gardener then, I didn’t know what the plant was, and to be honest, it didn’t matter: I was in love with my new purple beauty.

Two years later, after graduating from Cornell University’s Master Gardener program and working as a gardening columnist for my local newspaper, I sadly knew better: my favorite plant, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), was considered as invasive in my home state of New York.

“But it’s not spreading on my property,” I groaned to no one in particular. “It’s actually quite high.”

Further research revealed that while some plants make their invasive nature known in the home (looking at you, mint), others are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They seem well contained in the garden but go downright rogue when their seeds are eaten by birds and scattered elsewhere.

These seeds grow into plants that out-compete native vegetation because they are not recognized as food by much of the local wildlife, which would otherwise keep them under control. Left unchecked, they grow larger and eventually choke out native plants that provide food, nesting material and shelter for birds, pollinators and small animals. This disrupts the whole ecosystem.

Many state environmental agencies prohibit the sale and use of plants deemed harmful to human or ecological health. But some invasive species are not officially designated, and others may be listed by one state but not by another. To complicate matters further, some invasive species continue to be sold at retail.

So what’s a gardener to do?

For starters, avoid any plant advertised as “vigorous,” “fast-spreading,” “fast-climbing,” or “fast self-seeding,” which are marketers’ code words for invasive. Next, familiarize yourself with your state’s list of local invasive plants (these website addresses are compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at ).

Yes, I pulled out this purple loosestrife, which the EPA says “clogs rivers and lakes, turns into a carpet so thick boats and swimmers can’t pass, and destroys food and habitat for our fish and aquatic birds”. I replaced it with the sweet but equally beautiful Liatris spicata, which has been a respectful resident of my garden for 15 years.

Here are seven other garden bullies and suggestions for gentle alternatives to planting.

INVASIVE: Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) looks like a butterfly-friendly plant, but don’t let the name fool you. While your butterfly bush may, indeed, be covered in butterflies, the food source it provides for them is less than ideal. Additionally, it forms large thickets that displace native species in the wild.

NATIVE ALTERNATIVES: California lilac (Ceanothus) is an evergreen shrub with dark blue flowers that grows well in zones 8-10, or try white-flowered wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) in zones 3-9 .

INVASIVE: Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), a nitrogen-fixing legume, establishes easily even in the worst growing conditions, and its seeds can remain viable in the soil for decades. According to the EPA, it has “invaded most of the remaining Garry Oak Savannah ecosystems in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia (and) is considered a threat to the native plant community” .

NATIVE ALTERNATIVES: For similar loose-looking shrubs with small yellow flowers, consider Mormon tea (Ephedra) in zones 3-6 or California flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) in zones 8-10.

INVASIVE: The rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa) is ubiquitous on beach dunes along the entire northeast coast, as well as in coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest and parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan , Alaska and beyond. It is considered harmful for its ability to displace desirable vegetation.

NATIVE ALTERNATIVES: Arkansas rose (Rosa arkansana), California wild rose (Rosa californica), Carolina rose (Rosa carolina), Rosa virginiana (Virginia rose), Rosa woodsii (California wild rose) ‘west) and the prairie rose (Rosa setigera) are suitable ins. Choose the native rose named after the region closest to you.

INVASIVE: Chinese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) and Japanese wisteria (Wisteria sinensisuse) are aggressive climbers that threaten native species, including large trees.

NATIVE ALTERNATIVE: Look for the fragrant and beautiful American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) in zones 5-9.

INVASIVE: Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) forms large thickets and provides habitat for deer ticks and blacklegged ticks, which transmit Lyme disease and other diseases.

NATIVE ALTERNATIVES: For eye-catching berries that provide winter interest, consider American beauty (Callicarpa americana) in zones 6-10, winter holly (Ilex verticillata) in zones 3-9 or thorn- red barberry (Mahonia haematocarpa) in zones 5 through 9. .

INVASIVE: The winged burning bush (Euonymus alatus) produces an abundance of seeds that take root easily in the garden and in the wild when dispersed by birds.

NATIVE ALTERNATIVE: For equally spectacular red fall foliage in zones 3-8, plant ‘Autumn Magic’ black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa ‘Autumn Magic’) or northern blueberry (Vaccinium sp.) which produces fruits. In zones 2 through 8, fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) is a nice substitute.

INVASIVE: Miscanthus ornamental grass (Miscanthus sinensis), while still widely sold and planted, has been found to be invasive in over two dozen states, where it is known to overtake forests, roadsides, fields and other areas.

NATIVE ALTERNATIVES: Plant prickly bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) in full sun or prairie gout (Sporobolus heterolepis) seeds in full sun to partial shade. Both are suitable for zones 3-9.

Jessica Damiano writes regularly about gardening for The Associated Press. A master gardener and educator, she writes The Weekly Dirt newsletter and creates an annual wall calendar of daily gardening tips. Send him a note at [email protected] and find her on and on Instagram @JesDamiano.

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