The Most Harmful Invasive Plants in Minnesota

From giant hogweed to black swallow-rot, you might be surprised to spot some of these invasive plants in Minnesota in your backyard. Here’s what you need to know.
Written by Bonnie Stinson
Reviewed by Melanie Reiff
From yellow starthistle to Russian olive, Minnesota is home to some beautiful (but dangerous!) invasive plants. But why does it matter if a plant is invasive? And how could this impact your home insurance rates? 
A plant can be beautiful and deadly. Just look at the yellow starthistle, which has cute yellow blooms and dangerous spines that can poke your eyes out. Or consider giant hogweed, which has a toxic sap that could kill you or even blind you. Yes, invasive plants in Minnesota can be scary not to mention harmful to local biodiversity!
To help you get to know the most essential invasive plants in Minnesota,
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The top invasive plant species in Minnesota

1. Creeping Charlie aka ground ivy

Scientific name: Glechoma hederacea
What it looks like: Short plant with square stems, grows close to the ground; leaves are shiny, round, and toothed with small purple flowers in spring; smells faintly like mint when leaves are crushed
Why it’s a problem: Originally brought to the U.S. from Europe,
creeping Charlie
was used instead of hops in beer. Its previous name was “ale ivy.” Unfortunately, it dominates disturbed areas and suppresses local flora, especially new seedlings that can’t get enough sunlight through the ground cover. 
What to do: Cut or pull the ground ivy out by hand or with a rake. Stems must be completely removed, otherwise, it will grow back. If you need chemical suppression, try triclopyr. A good native substitute is common blue violet or wild ginger.

2. Giant hogweed

Scientific name: Heracleum mantegazzianum
What it looks like: Up to 15 feet tall; large serrated leaves that grow in clusters up to 5 feet wide, with white hairs on the underside of leaves; white flowers can be up to 2.5 feet wide and bloom in summer
Why it’s a problem:
Giant hogweed
sap is highly toxic. It produces chemical burns which can lead to permanent blindness if sap enters the eyes. Originally introduced to the U.S. as an ornamental plant, giant hogweed is now threatening local habitats throughout Minnesota and nearby states by forming dense cover that suppresses native growth.
What to do: Removal of giant hogweed requires extensive personal protective equipment, like masks, eye protection, and gloves. It’s recommended to contact the
Minnesota Department of Agriculture
for help managing giant hogweed stands. Try Culver’s root or cow parsnip for a native substitute.

3. Grecian foxglove

Scientific name: Digitalis lanata 
What it looks like: Up to five feet tall with cream-colored flowers with maroon veins that bloom in June; leaves are alternate and up to six inches long with smooth edges and parallel veins
Why it’s a problem: The perennial
Grecian foxglove
is an attractive part—but it is highly toxic to people and animals. It often sprouts up in hay fields, is mowed and dried, and then served to livestock, who eat it and die. It also outcompetes local plants, reducing biodiversity. In Minnesota, it’s a prohibited noxious weed on the eradicate list.
What to do: Do not burn Grecian foxglove, as this can release chemicals that harm people and animals. To remove this plant, wear long sleeves and gloves. You can mow from May to July to reduce flowering and seed production, and then follow up with herbicide. For a native alternative that has similar blooms, try
rough blazing star
slender beard tongue

4. Queen Anne’s lace

Scientific name:Daucus carota
What it looks like: 3-4 feet tall, with low-lying alternate leaves and an umbrella-shaped cluster of tiny white flowers that bloom from May to October; smells like a carrot; often found along roadsides, abandoned fields, and forest boundaries
Why it’s a problem: Though
Queen Anne’s lace
has just a two-year life cycle, it quickly dominates any landscape. Local grasslands can struggle to recover when this plant is present. It disturbs dry prairies. Selling Queen Anne’s lace seeds is not illegal in Minnesota.
What to do: You can cut, mow, or hand-pull Queen Anne’s lace before it goes to seed in mid-summer. Remember to wear long sleeves, long pants, and gloves to prevent the toxic sap from touching your skin. Try Virginia mountain mint or
flowering spurge
for a native alternative.

5. Tree-of-heaven

Scientific name: Ailanthus altissima
What it looks like: Small to medium-sized tree, yellow flower clusters in spring, crushed leaves smell like burnt peanut butter; thrives in areas of disturbance like roadsides
Why it’s a problem: A single tree can produce more than 300,000 seeds each year. Unfortunately, this plant
produces a toxin
that discourages nearby plants from growing. It has a powerful root system that can damage pipes and sewers, too.
What to do: First, confirm that you are dealing with a tree of heaven and not a walnut or sumac tree. Then, prepare yourself for a multi-year attack. Roots can extend to 50 feet around the trunk. You can pull the seedlings by hand but systemic herbicides are usually required to completely eradicate tree-of-heaven. If you want a native alternative, try common persimmon or winged sumac.

6. Yellow starthistle

Scientific name: Centaurea solstitialis
What it looks like: Annual plant that reaches up to 6 feet tall (but usually up to 3 feet tall); small yellow flowers with bracts that resembles thistles; long sharp spines
Why it’s a problem: This is an early intervention invasive plant in Minnesota, as it’s only been reported in nearby states. However,
yellow starthistle
is a serious threat to grazing animals and can be injured by the spines. This plant is also toxic to mules, horses, and burros. Finally, yellow starthistle rapidly forms a monoculture that dominates and suppressed native plant life.
What to do: Pull plants by hand or with a shovel, taking care to avoid the spines. It’s a noxious weed on the Eradicate List, so you must remove all above and below-ground parts of the plant. Mowing can help reduce flowering but it’s not enough to completely remove the plant. Try Canada golden road or autumn sneezeweed for a colorful native alternative.

7. Reed canary grass

Scientific name: Phalaris arundinacea
What it looks like: Perennial grass that grows 2-6 feet tall, flat blades that taper; hairless stems; flowers in dense clusters that may be green, purple, or beige in early summer; often found in wetlands or moist areas
Why it’s a problem:
Reed canary grass
was planted widely in the U.S. starting in the 1800s to control erosion. Unfortunately, it has had a detrimental effect on wetland restoration, stream channeling, and insect biodiversity. Most Minnesota state agencies no longer plant reed canary grass.
What to do: Mow between mid-June and October to reduce seed production, and plan to move again during the second growth in autumn. Burning consecutively in the spring and fall can help reduce growth too. Hand-pulling small patches are effective, or you can cover the area with black plastic for at least one growing season. For local grass, try lake sedge or prairie cordgrass.

8. Russian olive

Scientific name:Elaeagnus angustifolia
What it looks like: Deciduous shrub or tree up to 25 feet tall; leaves are lance-shaped and silvery underneath; bark comes off in narrow elongated strips; clusters of 1-3 yellow or white flowers bloom in spring; olive-like hard fruits are borne in late summer through the winter
Why it’s a problem: This beautiful plant was introduced as a windbreak in the late 1800s, but it is now understood that
Russian olive
fixes nitrogen in the soil and alters the soil conditions. This negatively impacts nutrient cycling and water storage. Russian olive also chokes out local plants by dominating resources along stream banks and in prairies.
What to do: Pull young plants to remove, or use cutting blades to remove larger shrubs. Regular mowing will help but herbicide control on stumps is most effective. Try gray dogwood or nannyberry for a local alternative.

9. Black swallow-wort 

Scientific name: Cynanchum louiseae
What it looks like: A vine in the milkweed family that grows up to 6 feet long; no tendrils; glossy varied leaves; tiny purple flowers with a yellow center that bloom in summer
Why it’s a problem: Monarch butterflies love
black swallow-wort
. This is unfortunate because, unlike native milkweed, this plant is fatal to larvae—who cannot survive. Black swallow wort also grows into dense stands that dominate local plants, not to mention releasing chemicals that suppress native seedlings and alter the soil.
What to do: You can dig out the plant so long as you remove the root crown. Mowing is not effective against black swallow wort. Try to time your intervention when seed pods are not mature. For a local alternative that is safe for monarch butterflies, try swamp milkweed or virgin’s bower.

The five most invasive aquatic plants in Minnesota

From backyard ponds to regional waterways, any body of water in Minnesota could harbor one of these threatening invasive aquatic plants. 

1. Purple loosestrife

Scientific name: Lythrum salicaria
What it looks like: Lance-shaped leaves, square woody stem, purple flowers bloom on the stalks in late summer; often found in wetlands, ditches, or near the water line
Why it’s a problem:
Purple loosestrife
can grow densely along waterways, preventing access to the water and out-competing native plants. This changes the hydrology of wetlands and threatens the habitats of local animals. Millions of tiny seeds spread easily on watercraft, fishing gear, and roadside maintenance equipment.
What to do: To prevent the spread, clean your aquatic gear carefully. Use a weed puller or shovel to remove small stands. Mowing is ineffective. Some species of beetle are an effective means of biological control. Talk to an
aquatic invasive species specialist
for assistance. Fireweed is a safe native alternative.

2. Curly leaf pondweed

Scientific name: Potamogeton crispus
What it looks like: Grows from the shore toward the water; leaves look like small green lasagna with a mid-vein; flower stalks grow in June
Why it’s a problem: Dense mats can choke out local plant life and deplete oxygen levels. Plus, thick growth makes it impossible for watercraft to navigate. When curly-leaf pondweed dies in midsummer, the dead plants clog up the shoreline. 
What to do: Make sure that you’re dealing with curly-leaf pondweed and not a native variant like broad-leaf or clasping-leaf pondweed. To prevent the spread, clean your watercraft and fishing gear thoroughly. Rake the plants or pull them by hand to remove them.

3. Flowering rush

Scientific name: Butomus umbellatus  
What it looks like: Tall reeds 1 to 4 feet tall with umbrella-shaped pink flowers that bloom in summer; roots are bulb-like; typically grows in shallow, gentle waters
Why it’s a problem: Although only one area of
flowering rush
in Minnesota is currently known to produce viable seeds, it can cause plenty of damage wherever it springs up. Flowering rush can dominate shoreland areas, suppressing the plants that would provide suitable habitats for local wildlife.
What to do: Clean your watercraft and aquatic equipment carefully after each activity. You can cut the plant below the surface multiple times per summer, or hand dig out the entire plant in shallow areas. Root fragments can sprout, so be very careful. Aquatic pesticides like imazapyr may be effective but
require a permit

4. Eurasian water-milfoil

Scientific name: Myriophyllum spicatum
What it looks like: Grows beneath the water’s surface, feather-like green leaves with tiny reddish flowers above the surface in late summer; often grows in shallow water
Why it’s a problem:
Eurasian water milfoil
reduces biodiversity by outcompeting local plants and decreasing oxygen levels. Dense mats of this plant can inhibit water recreation and lead to standing water (and mosquitoes). Worst of all, water milfoil spreads easily on water currents and on watercraft.
What to do: Do not attempt to boat through stands of Eurasian mil-foil, as you will contribute to spreading it. You can rake out water milfoil but it will regrow from root fragments left behind. A better option is to use a physical barrier and shade the bottom. 

How to save on homeowners’ insurance in Minnesota

Defending your home against threats means taking invasive plants in Minnesota seriously. A tiny infestation of reed canary grass could quickly overtake your property—and yellow starthistle could hurt your pets or livestock.
Home insurance
is another essential part of responsible home ownership. But you don’t have to pay huge sums for coverage. Get help from
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