Japanese honeysuckle, garlic mustard, and Japanese knotweed are some of North Carolina’s most troublesome invasive plant species.
Despite some having beautiful names and appearances, many invasive plants in North Carolina are bad news. They can crowd out native species and reduce food sources native species depend on. Some can pose threats to public health, and others can even damage buildings’ structural integrity—which is of particular concern for homeowners.
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The top 10 invasive plant species in North Carolina
1. Tree of heaven
Scientific name:Ailanthus altissima
What it looks like: Tree native to China with large, notched compound leaves; sprouts yellow flower clusters in spring
Why it’s a problem: For North Carolina’s ecosystems, the “tree of heaven” is anything but. This tree is tolerant of poor-quality soil, which helps it to spread aggressively and crowd out other native species. It could also serve as a host plant for the invasive
spotted lantern fly.
What to do: Pull up young saplings before they sprout flowers to limit their spread.
2. Mimosa / pink silk tree
Scientific name: Albizia julibrissin
What it looks like: Deciduous tree that develops feathery, fragrant pink and white blooms; “fern-like” leaves will close when touched
Why it’s a problem: Native to Asia, the first known introduction of this tree to North America was during the 1740s as an ornamental tree, thanks to its showy pink flowers. Beautiful as the plant may be, it can spread quickly and outcompete native species, and its seeds are toxic to dogs and livestock. It also resprouts after it’s been cut back, which makes it difficult to get under control once it’s been established.
What to do: Don’t plant one on your property! Choose a
native flowering treeinstead. After trimming down a mimosa tree, keep an eye on the area to make sure it doesn’t resprout.
3. Autumn olive
Scientific name: Elaeagnus umbellata
What it looks like: Thorny shrub/small tree that sprouts white, four-petaled flowers and bright red berries
Why it’s a problem: Autumn olive’s lineage traces back to Afghanistan and eastern Asia; it was introduced to the United States during the 1800s as an ornamental plant and was even used for purposes like wildlife habitat before its invasive properties were more widely known.
Autumn olive matures and spreads quickly, and it’s a highly drought-tolerant plant, which helps it overshadow local species.
What to do: Plants can be pulled by hand, but be sure not to leave any fragments behind that could sprout new growth. Spot treatments with the proper herbicide can be effective for larger problem patches.
4. Multiflora rose
Scientific name:Rosa multiflora
What it looks like: Deciduous shrub that grows small white flowers; can be mistaken for local varieties of brambles
Why it’s a problem: Local wildlife have adapted to consume specific types of food items, and apparently, nobody’s interested in adding the multiflora rose to their menu. The lack of local predators and its fast-growing nature allows it to quickly overtake natural areas.
What to do: Plant local
Rosa carolina or Rubus cuneifoliusinstead. Mowing throughout the growing season over several years can help bring problem areas under control, and herbicide treatments are sometimes used as well.
5. Japanese honeysuckle
Scientific name: Lonicera japonica
What it looks like: Vine that produces fragrant white flowers in spring
Why it’s a problem: According to
North Carolina State University, the flowers of this plant are edible, but its toxic berries can cause illness and even lead to a coma. It can climb and grow over other native species, depriving them of sunlight and other nutrients, and it spreads quickly and aggressively—so aggressively, in fact, that it can sometimes topple trees (which could become a serious problem if it’s near your home).
What to do: Remove the plants by hand when possible. Prescribed burns and strategic spot treatments of the right herbicide have proven effective to control large patches. Don’t try to mow them over, however, as this will only allow new plant fragments to take root.
6. Garlic mustard
Scientific name:Alliaria petiolata
What it looks like: Small flowering plant with toothed leaves and four-petaled white flowers; has small, fine hairs on its stem
Why it’s a problem: Native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, garlic mustard was introduced to North America during the 1800s as a food ingredient—but while edible, caution is necessary because it does release cyanide as a defense when its leaves are cut.
Garlic mustard can crowd out native wildflower species and limit certain pollinators’ food sources as a result and is toxic to larvae of certain butterfly species.
What to do: Uproot garlic mustard when identified. While cutting off flower stalks can be effective for some plants, it doesn’t work for garlic mustard because it will just sprout new stalks.
7. Japanese knotweed
Scientific name:Reynoutria japonica
What it looks like: Plant with triangular- and heart-shaped leaves with upright flowering stalks in late summer; hollow, reddish-brown stems resemble bamboo
Why it’s a problem: Japanese knotweed has strong underground rhizomes that spread quickly and can cause substantial damage to home foundations, roads, and more.
What to do: Pull seedlings early on to prevent spread.
8. Kudzu vine/Japanese arrowroot
Scientific name:Pueraria montana var. lobata
What it looks like: A deciduous woody vine and member of the pea family; produces pink or purple flowers and fuzzy bean pods
Why it’s a problem: Kudzu was originally introduced during the 1800s in an attempt to combat soil erosion, but it introduced some new environmental problems as well. This climbing vine wraps around other plants and can eventually dominate tree canopies, shading out other native plants. Wildlife doesn’t seek it out as a food source, which only aids in how quickly it can spread across an area.
What to do: Mow, hand-pull, or treat problem areas with the right herbicide.
9. English ivy
Scientific name:Hedera helix
What it looks like: Evergreen vine with waxy leaves that produces poisonous grape-like fruits
Why it’s a problem: Once English ivy establishes itself, it can be virtually impossible to eradicate, which is why
North Carolina Universitydeems it “one of the worst invasive weed problems in North Carolina.” It quickly crowds out and smothers other native forest species, which in turn limits food sources available to local wildlife. It can also lead to structural problems if it were to grow too close to your home by maneuvering around gutters or under siding if left unchecked.
What to do: English ivy’s waxy leaves help make it resistant to herbicides, but some people have used white vinegar on the plant instead. Hand-pull plants early on whenever possible—just be sure to remove the root. Mowing throughout the growing season can help bring areas under control in time as well.
10. Chinese silvergrass
Scientific name:Miscanthus sinensis
What it looks like: Tall grass with fluffy white seed heads in fall/winter
Why it’s a problem: Chinese silvergrass can be mistaken for plenty of
other native grasses, but its weedy nature can leave out room for other local plants.
What to do: Cut down in late winter or early spring before new shoots emerge.
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The five most invasive aquatic plants in North Carolina
It’s not just on land—there are also a number of invasive aquatic plants that cause problems for North Carolina’s underwater environments. The following list highlights five of them.
For guidance on how to get these invasive aquatic plants under control on your own property, you can contact the
North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
Scientific name:Alternanthera philoxeroides
What it looks like: Plant that grows in “floating mats” near the water’s surface and produces “clover-like” flowers
Why it’s a problem: Alligator weed impacts natural water flow as it spreads out over areas and increases the risk of flooding and erosion. They can also serve as a haven for mosquito populations, which in turn presents public health risks.
2. Eurasian watermilfoil
Scientific name:Myriophyllum spicatum
What it looks like: Underwater plant that grows toward water’s surface; branches have feathery leaves; floral spikes can eventually emerge from the water
Why it’s a problem: Eurasion watermilfoil is considered one of the worst invasive aquatic weeds in the U.S. It grows in dense patches and spreads out in canopies at the water’s surface that block sunlight from other underwater plant life.
3. Common reed
Scientific name:Phragmites australis
What it looks like: Tall wetland grass that can grow to be up to 15 feet tall
Why it’s a problem: Some varieties of this plant are native to North America, but invasive species can be traced back to Europe, Asia, and Australia. Non-native varieties can grow in dense stands and crowd out local species.
4. Creeping water primrose
Scientific name: Ludwigia grandiflora
What it looks like: Aquatic plant that sprawls across the water’s surface and creates bright yellow flowers
Why it’s a problem: Some water primroses are native to North America, while the invasive species can be traced back to South America. As it sprawls across the water’s surface, it blocks sunlight from other underwater plants, which can throw a whole water body’s ecosystem out of balance.
Scientific name: Ludwigia grandiflora
What it looks like: Aquatic plant with reddish stems and green feathery leaves; small white flowers grow above the water
Why it’s a problem: Parrotfeather is a member of the watermilfoil family and is believed to be native to South America. Once it establishes itself in a body of water, it grows densely and reduces food and habitat resources for other aquatic life, and degrades water quality.
How to save on homeowners’ insurance in North Carolina
Some of North Carolina’s worst invasive species can be a real threat if you’re a homeowner. That’s just one of many reasons why it’s important to have the right kind of
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