The Most Harmful Invasive Plants in Virginia

From ivy to hairy crabweed, you might be surprised to discover how damaging these invasive plants in Virginia are. Here’s what you need to know.
Written by Bonnie Stinson
Reviewed by Melanie Reiff
From two-horned trapa to porcelain berry, Virginia is fighting some seriously aggressive invasive plants. But how serious is the situation, and what do homeowners need to know about the plants in their backyard?
Invasive plants threaten Virginia’s natural biodiversity, increase the risk to wildlife, and make it difficult to enjoy Virginia’s waterways. They may look attractive, such as Japanese stiltgrass and Nandina bamboo, but homeowners should be cautious about which plants they cultivate. Some could be toxic to pets—or they’ll choke out all your other plants if you let them grow. 
So, let’s learn about the most invasive plants in Virginia.
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The top invasive plant species in Virginia

1. Mulberry weed aka hairy crabweed

Scientific name:Fatoua villosa
What it looks like: Flowers in late summer and fall, resembling mulberry tree seedlings; grows from 3 inches to 4 feet tall, light green leaves with scalloped edges; found in moist and dark areas like woodlands or wet fields
Why it’s a problem:
Mulberry weed
competes with native woodland plants, displacing local flora. It also hitchhikes to other areas. 
What to do: Remove mulberry weed before it flowers, otherwise seeds will spread. Use a small digging knife or rip it out by hand. Trash the plants, as compost piles will not kill the seeds. Preventative steps like cleaning your shoes and trowels can help stop the spread.

2. Japanese stiltgrass

Scientific name: Microstegium vimineum
What it looks like: Up to 3 feet tall, lance-shaped leaves between 1 and 3 inches long; seeds float in water and are often found in shady wet areas
Why it’s a problem: Originally used to pack porcelain, Japanese stiltgrass spreads prolifically and chokes out local seedlings and other vegetation. Without intervention, it grows into a thick mat that local wildlife will avoid eating.
What to do: Remove stiltgrass by hand-pulling in late summer before seeds appear. Do not pull in spring, as this can promote seed growth. Livestock are ineffective at removing stiltgrass. You may need glyphosate if you’re facing a large patch of stiltgrass.

3. Porcelain berry aka amur peppervine

Scientific name: Ampelopsis glandulosa var. brevipedunculata 
What it looks like: Resembles grape vines with strong woody stems; tiny white flowers in July; berries become colorful into late summer; can grow up to 20 feet tall; common in damp areas near water
Why it’s a problem: The
porcelain berry plant
was traditionally used for ornamental screening. Unfortunately, it’s so thick and fast growing that these plants will block all sun to nearby vegetation. As a result, porcelain berry is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity in Virginia today.
What to do: Firstly, make sure it is a porcelain berry plant. It gets easily confused with native grape species. Seedlings are removable by hand, or you can use a blade trimmer and spade to rip out the root network. Be vigilant, as this plant only needs a tiny root fragment to stage a comeback. Don’t let any seeds fall!

4. Chinese privet

Scientific name:Ligustrum sinense
What it looks like: Shiny small green leaves up to 2 inches long, small white flowers in late spring; plant typically grows to 12 feet tall although can reach 30 feet; thrives in damp areas and along roadsides
Why it’s a problem: This popular ornamental shrub has spread widely, thanks to birds. Chinese privet is fast growing and prevents native shrubs from getting enough light. 
What to do: Luckily, this plant’s roots are fairly shallow. You can pull smaller plants up by hand, though you must be careful to remove the entire root system. Do not mow or cut them back, as this can promote regrowth. If you want a native alternative, try Carolina cherry laurel or devil wood.

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 yearly. Unfortunately, this plant
produces a toxin
that discourages nearby plants from growing. It has a robust root system that can damage pipes and sewers, too.
What to do: First, confirm that you are dealing with a tree-of-heaven, 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 eradicate tree-of-heaven completely. If you want a native alternative, try common persimmon or winged sumac.

6. English ivy

Scientific name:Hedera helix
What it looks like: Waxy green leaves with 3-5 lobes that cover the ground or grow into vines along tree trunks; evergreen perennial with small white flowers in late summer
Why it’s a problem: Ivy grows fiercely with minimal maintenance. It chokes trees, prevents light from reaching lower vegetation, and creates the perfect conditions for rotted tree bark by holding moisture. Not only does this lead to reduced biodiversity but it can lead to dangerous conditions where trees will fall without warning.
What to do: Ivy is very
difficult to remove
because it grows quickly. You can cut large vines off trees at the root. Then, wait a few weeks for the higher vines to die and dry out before pulling down the vines with a rake. Next, peel ivy off the tree trunk with a flathead screwdriver. You must remove the roots to eradicate ivy. If you happen to have some, goats are a good solution for clearing ground ivy. Native alternatives include Virginia creeper, wild ginger, or cross vine.

7. Nandina bamboo

Scientific name:Nandina domestica
What it looks like: Multicolored pinnately compound leaves, shrub grows up to 4 feet wide and up to 8 feet tall; blooms in late spring with clusters to red berries in early winter; tolerates full sun or shade
Why it’s a problem: This is a false bamboo. Nandina is certainly attractive to look at, but its berries are toxic to people and animals. For example, local birds will frequently eat Nandina berries if other food is unavailable and
then die
What to do: Remove smaller plants by hand and use a shovel to remove bigger shrubs. Do not mow or cut Nandina, as it can regrow from a root fragment. Try to remove the plants before berries form in late autumn. If you like year-round color in your garden, try a native alternative like winterberry holly or yaupon holly.

8. Italian arum

Scientific name:Arum italicum
What it looks like: Luscious deep green leaves shaped like arrowheads that appear in late fall; light-colored veins; orange berries in clusters are toxic; commonly found in moist shaded areas like woodlands although it is drought-tolerant
Why it’s a problem: This plant produces an impenetrable ground cover. It’s particularly damaging in riparian environments, especially because it’s much more resilient in winter than many native plants.
What to do: You must remove the tubers to completely eradicate Italian arum. It’s nearly impossible to stop arum from replenishing itself. It’s unresponsive to chemical removal and burning, so you may need several years of continuous suppression to achieve results. Remember to wear gloves to prevent the toxic sap from irritating your skin.

9. Fountain grass 

Scientific name:Pennisetum alopecuroides
What it looks like: Dense stands of grass with tan or pink fluffy heads, grows up to 4.5 feet tall, fibrous roots up to 1 foot deep; found in drier environments, cold tolerant
Why it’s a problem: These attractive grasses can devastate local ecosystems. Not only does fountain grass outcompete local plants, but it also creates a serious fire risk. 
What to do: Prepare for several years of action to completely remove fountain grass. You can pull seedlings by hand monthly, paying careful attention to root fragments. Use a pick or plow to remove larger plants. Bag and remove them to prevent seeds from spreading. Do not burn, as fire can encourage proliferation.
Native alternatives
include splitbeard bluestem and pink muhly grass.
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The five most invasive aquatic plants in Virginia

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

1. Duckweed

Scientific name:Lemnoideae 
What it looks like: Dense groups of tiny oval leaves that grow in a cluster of 1-3 leaves; typically found in still waters
Why it’s a problem:
multiplies so fast that it eventually suffocates fish and plants. By depleting oxygen levels, duckweed inhibits biodiversity and threatens local wildlife.
What to do: Use a rake to pull duckweed out of the water in mats. You can also use an aerator to activate the water, if you’re dealing with duckweed in a private pond.

2. Curly leaf pondweed

Scientific name:Potamogeton crispus
What it looks like: Grows from the shore toward 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 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 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. Then, rake the plants or pull them by hand to remove them.

3. Alligatorweed

Scientific name:Alternanthera philoxeroides  
What it looks like: Pink stems with leaves protruding 4-5 inches, white flowers with thin petals; usually grows along the shore of streams and ponds
Why it’s a problem:
is a serious problem nationwide, not only in Virginia. It grows into a dense mat that blocks out the sun for fish and plants below the water line. Alligatorweed also inhibits water recreation, as the clumps are impassible for boats.
What to do: If you catch the infestation early enough, you can rake the mats out of the water. However, mature plants may require herbicides. Consult with your local wildlife conservation experts about appropriate herbicides to prevent damage to local wildlife and water systems.

4. Two-horned trapa

Scientific name:Trapa bispinosa 
What it looks like: Floating fan-shaped leaves, large seed pods with spines, pinkish flowers in June; long vines with root systems that can extend up to 12 feet deep into the mud; usually found in shallow and slow-moving water
Why it’s a problem:
Two-horned trapa
is one of Virginia's
newest threats
to local flora. The barbed spines are incredibly sharp, creating a hazard for humans and wildlife alike. This plant obstructs water flow and outcompetes native plants.
What to do: You can remove Trapa by hand if you wear sturdy gloves. You should continue to monitor the water yearly, with June being the most effective time for removal (before plants go to seed). Once the plants are removed, dry them out and then burn or bag them to prevent further spread.

5. 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 Virginia

Supporting local biodiversity is admirable, but preventing damage to your own property is equally important. Did you know that plants can affect your home insurance rates? Trees growing close to the house—or prairie grasses with high fire risk—could increase your payment or disqualify your home from coverage.
To figure out how to protect yourself and your assets, get help from
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