Look Out for These Invasive Plants in Kentucky

Bush honeysuckle, Chinese privet, and cogongrass are three of Kentucky’s most invasive plant species.
Written by Jason Tushinski
Reviewed by Melanie Reiff
From Japanese knotweed to garlic mustard and from kudzu to Tree of Heaven, there are 11 invasive plant species in Kentucky that homeowners should be on the lookout for.
Besides that big horse race every May, there are plenty of reasons to call Kentucky home. From pleasant, rolling hills to rich farmland and from vibrant cities to lush forests and thriving rivers, the Bluegrass State has a lot to love. 
Wherever you plan on planting your roots and tossing back a mint julep (or two), you’ll want to keep a sober eye out for invasive plants. Such nuisances can harm the environment—and even your family’s health.
That’s why
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The top 11 invasive plant species in Kentucky

1. Bush honeysuckle

Scientific name: Lonicera maackii
What it looks like: White or yellow-ish Amur flowers with red seeds that can grow either as tall plants (as high as 20 feet) or as shrubs
Why it’s a problem: First introduced in the U.S. in 1897 as an ornamental plant, bush honeysuckle was used for conservation and wildlife purposes during the 1960s and 1970s. Initially grown in the Midwest, Southeast, and East, it is usually spread by songbirds. 
Bush honeysuckle can tolerate a wide variety of conditions and pose a significant threat to woodlands across Kentucky. It outcompetes other vegetation for shade and nutrients and also produces toxic chemicals that prevent native plants from regrowing in the area.
What to do: Depending on the plant size, you might be able to pull knee-high plants by hand. The removal of stumps and treating them with herbicide is recommended to deaden the root. Be careful if using herbicide though, as it can be harmful to other, native plants.

2. Chinese privet

Scientific name: Ligustrum sinense
What it looks like: A semi-deciduous or evergreen tree that can grow up to 30 feet high, with pale gray bark along its trunk and leafy branches
Why it’s a problem: Introduced in the mid-1800s, Chinese privet was widely planted in the U.S. as both an ornamental plant, as well as a hedgerow. However, it's become an aggressive invader of woodlands in Kentucky and has proliferated throughout the South, especially in Georgia. 
You’ll find Chinese privet in both lowlands and uplands, in floodplains, along streams, and in forests. Its fruits are eaten by various animals and mammals, so its spread moves quickly.
What to do: As Chinese privet is hard to control, remove small seedlings and plants by hand. Try to rip the entire root system out. If you don’t, it will grow back. You can also apply herbicide by hand to its stump to target its origin.

3. Chinese silvergrass

Scientific name: Miscanthus sinensis
What it looks like: An ornamental and densely-bunched grass with tall, stunning flowerheads and white leaves growing up and to the side like a fountain
Why it’s a problem: Tracing its origins back to China, Korea, and Japan, Chinese silvergrass is a threat because it often escapes its beds (often planted as windbreaks) and spreads along roadsides and disturbed ground in rural areas. Chinese silvergrass has an extensive root system and can be difficult to eradicate. 
What to do: If Chinese silvergrass has invaded a large area, herbicide is your best bet for removing it. If you’re only dealing with a single plant or a small patch of silvergrass, you can rip it out by hand, but follow up next year for any new growth or missed plants. 

4. Cogongrass

Scientific name: Imperata cylindrica
What it looks like: Usually standing 2 to 4 feet tall with light yellowish-green leaf blades that often turn red during the fall and appear to emerge right from the soil. But if you look closely, you can see tiny stems.
Why it’s a problem: One of the world’s most invasive weeds, it was first introduced in Alabama in 1912. Cogongrass can spread far and wide and is currently a problem in the Southeast. 
Cogongrass can spoil hunting lands and pose a danger to no-till agricultural lands. While it is not in Kentucky yet, it is expected to invade its soils, pastures, and woodlands. Cogongrass is easily spread via the wind, as well as by moving contaminated soil or equipment. 
What to do: It’s tough to get rid of cogongrass, as you’ll need to mow, graze it away, or burn it. Deep plowing can work as well, but you’ll need to make sure your plow can reach at least 6 inches down into the soil.

5. Garlic mustard

Scientific name:Alliaria petiolata
What it looks like: Similar to a basil plant with green rosettes
Why it’s a problem: With a European origin, garlic mustard was first noticed in Long Island, New York in 1868 and is now common across the country, including in Kentucky. Garlic mustard grows amid agriculture, rights-of-way, hardwood forests, and both disturbed and undisturbed ground. It can carpet a forest floor.
What to do: As a biennial, garlic mustard seeds stick around for years, so controlling it will be a drawn-out process. Herbicide is likely your best bet at controlling it, but you’ll want to apply it to individual plants if possible to avoid damaging other vegetation. 
Concentrate your efforts from fall through early spring (the dormant season) and make sure the temperature is over 50 degrees when treating the problem.

6. Japanese honeysuckle

Scientific name:Lonicera japonica
What it looks like: A woody, dense vine that can reach as high as 40 feet tall with branches that fall opposite each other and have round stems
Why it’s a problem: Japanese honeysuckle is a problem because of how aggressive it is. It grows year-round in Kentucky and outcompetes other vegetation for light and nutrients
Like bush honeysuckle, Japanese honeysuckle produces a toxic chemical that stops other native plants from growing.
What to do: You’ll want to apply herbicide during the winter so you don’t harm other plants and vegetation. Be sure to apply the herbicide on a dry, sunny, and windless day with temperatures over 40 degrees, ideally. 

7. Japanese knotweed

Scientific name:Reynoutria japonica
What it looks like: Dense-yet-thin stalks that grow about 4 inches long, with creamy, white-colored flowers on thin spikes
Why it’s a problem: Native to East Asia, this invasive shrub outcompetes and out shades native Kentucky vegetation, which thus doesn’t germinate. It can grow in almost any condition.
What to do: Japanese knotweed has a big underground root system and grows quickly, making it hard to contain. Your best bet to get rid of Japanese knotweed is to kill its root system with a combination of mechanical removal and herbicide.

8. Japanese stiltgrass

Scientific name: Microstegium vimineum
What it looks like: A small bamboo plant
Why it’s a problem: Japanese stiltgrass, also known as Nepalese browntop, has become a problem in Kentucky because of how easily it spreads around. Originally from East Asia, it was introduced in Kentucky in the 1930s and has remained ever since. 
It tolerates many types of soil and seeps especially easily into moist ground. It spreads as dense mats and can crowd out native vegetation.
What to do: Since it's shallow-rooted, you can pull it out with your hand. Be prepared to do this yearly though, as it can take up to five years to completely eradicate. You can also mow it close to flowering time (late August to early September). If this doesn’t work, you might have to resort to herbicides.

9. Kudzu

Scientific name: Pueraria lobata Willd
What it looks like: A long stem or vine roughly 6 inches in length that produces reddish-purple flowers, which hang in clusters and are quite fragrant
Why it’s a problem: Originally hailing from China and first introduced to the U.S. in the 1800s, kudzu was initially used as an ornamental plant but was also used as a forage crop and as a soil stabilizer. However, it has since proliferated in Kentucky and the Southeast.
It grows voraciously and squeezes out other plants for sunlight, preventing native vegetation from growing. It is most common on forest edges, rights-of-way, stream banks, and abandoned homesteads. 
What to do: Grazing animals, such as goats and cattle, are very handy in controlling kudzu, as it helps treat upset stomachs (in animals). Mowing, hand removal, and prescribed burning don’t work as well. So, if you don’t have cattle? Get some.

10. Tree of Heaven

Scientific name: Ailanthus altissima What it looks like: Trees that reach up to 80 feet tall with gray, smooth bark and large clusters of yellowish-green flowers
Why it’s a problem: As Tree of Heaven is common on the understories of Kentucky’s mature forests, it can easily outgrow native plants with its dense thicket—not to mention the toxins it excretes into the soil
Its flowers emit an unpleasant odor as well, and it has no natural predators. So, it can grow and grow, establishing itself along roads, trails, and woodlands.
What to do: Even in scattered groups, hand-pulling or mowing might not do the trick for small Trees of Heaven. You’ll likely need to individually treat clusters of it with herbicides. For smaller trees, you can use a foliar spray; for bigger trees or plants, you’ll need to cut the tree and then treat the stump with herbicide.

11. Wintercreeper

Scientific name: Euonymus fortunei
What it looks like: A dense shrub or evergreen woody vine with green stems that eventually become gray and cork-like with age, accompanied by glossy, dark green leaves about 1.5 inches long 
Why it's a problem: The wintercreeper’s vines can grow between 30 and 70 feet high and can overtake small trees and kill them. This vegetation also reproduces, as its seeds are spread around by birds. It’s a perennial and can withstand a wide variety of conditions, too.
What to do: For a small infestation of wintercreeper, you can pull it out with your hands. Make sure to get the whole root so it doesn’t grow back. For a larger and denser infestation, you might need to use herbicide to kill it off.

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