28 Invasive Plants to Avoid in The Midwest
Are you a Midwest gardener with concerns about invasive species? There are plenty of invasive plants that can not only take over your garden but spread into the neighboring landscape. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen introduces 28 invasive species that Midwestern gardeners should watch out for, plus 28 alternative plants you can grow instead.
If you live in the midwestern United States, you have probably seen plenty of invasive plant species. Some may be so familiar you don’t even realize they’re invasive. Invasive plants have taken over fields, forests, wetlands, and urban landscapes. Avoid the same fate for your yard.
Invasive plant species have a way of taking over. Their tolerance of many growing conditions allows them to spread rapidly and vigorously. They outcompete, shade out, or smother native plants. Because they can grow so densely, they prevent native plants from taking hold.
For these reasons, it is very difficult to garden with invasive species. Once you plant them, they can be difficult to control and even more difficult to eradicate. You will constantly battle against a plant that wants to spread as much as possible.
When they spread beyond your yard, they compete with native plants and reduce valuable food sources for native wildlife, especially pollinators who depend on certain species of plants, both nectar and as a larval food source, to support the next generation of butterflies.
As a gardener, you can learn to identify the most common invasive plants in your area. As you design your garden, don’t plant invasives. Watch out for invasive plants at garden centers because many are still widely available for purchase. If you already have invasive plants, remove them before adding a well-balanced assortment of easier-to-manage species.
Keep reading to learn about some common invasive plant species in the Midwest. If you are considering or removing one of these species, check out the alternative suggestion instead. Growing non-invasive plants will make your garden immensely easier to manage!
The Amur corktree (Phellodendron amurense) is an ornamental tree native to northern China. It has thick, corky bark and pinnately compound leaves with a distinctively pungent smell. These trees are dioecious, having separate male and female plants.
The female Amur corktree produces bunches of round pale fruits eaten and distributed by birds. These trees then invade nearby woodlands and roadsides, displacing native vegetation.
Alternative: If you want a smaller tree with ornamental value, try the native hop tree (Ptelea trifoliata). Hop tree has clusters of small, fragrant spring-blooming flowers and benefits butterflies and other pollinators.
Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is an aggressively growing deciduous shrub from Asia. In the spring, it produces fragrant flowers, and in the fall, it develops clusters of small burgundy-red fruits.
This plant is a popular landscaping hedge appreciated for its showy fruits. If allowed to naturalize, autumn olive spreads quickly by root suckers, and birds further help the spread by eating the fruits and distributing the seeds. Autumn olives can grow into dense, impenetrable colonies that outcompete native vegetation.
Alternative: Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is an attractive native deciduous shrub that does well in partial shade and moist soil. In the spring, it produces clusters of tubular red flowers that hummingbirds love. During the rest of the summer, you can enjoy the showy palmately compound leaves.
Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), also called European buckthorn, is a deciduous shrub native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. While it gained popularity as a hedge and landscaping plant, it has become invasive through much of the Midwest.
Buckthorn has small, fragrant, spring-blooming flowers and shiny blackish-blue fall fruits. Birds and small mammals eat the fruits and help distribute these plants into nearby forests, fields, and roadsides.
Alternative: Are you looking for a shrub with beautiful flowers? Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a native shrub with spherical white flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Buttonbush is a great choice for a moist location in full sun or partial shade.
Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is a bushy shrub native to Asia. It is widely available as an ornamental landscaping plant, best known for its brilliant red fall foliage. This plant is very adaptable and tolerant of a variety of environmental conditions, allowing it to thrive just about anywhere.
It spreads primarily by self-seeding and as birds eat and distribute the seeds into nearby habitats. This plant has now invaded roadsides, open woodlands, fields, and other disturbed areas where it competes with native vegetation.
Alternative: Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a native deciduous shrub that makes a great landscaping plant. In the spring, it has beautiful white flowers that attract pollinators. By mid-summer, it is laden with small, round, blackish fruits, and in the fall, the leaves turn from green to brilliant red.
Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) is a small, deciduous shrub native to Asia. The showy flowers and ease of growth make it a popular landscape plant.
Butterfly bush is a prolific self-seeder and can easily escape cultivation and spread into the surrounding landscape. Wherever dense stands of these plants exist, they compete with native species and reduce natural biodiversity.
Alternative: Are you looking for a beautiful plant to support pollinators? Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) is a native shrub that produces very showy dark purple flowers in the summertime. This plant is hardy and easy to grow. Leadplant provides a valuable nectar source for native bees and butterflies.
Bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) is native to Europe and Asia. These shrubby bushes leaf out very early in the springtime and produce an abundance of fragrant white or creamy-colored flowers. Gardeners use Bush honeysuckle as a landscaping plant, particularly in hedgerows, and for erosion control.
This plant grows quickly and spreads by root suckers and seeds. Birds eat the small red fruits and distribute the seeds far from the parent plants. Bush honeysuckle invades forests, forest edges, and parklands, creating dense thickets that reduce native species diversity.
Alternative: Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is a small tree native to eastern North America. It blooms in the late spring or early summer with dense masses of snowy white flowers that attract butterflies and bees. Pagoda dogwood is a reliable and showy bloomer you can look forward to each year.
Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), or Bradford pear, is a deciduous tree native to Asia. This fast-growing tree is popular for landscaping in neighborhoods and along roadways because it is easy to grow, tolerant of most any conditions, and produces masses of showy white flowers each spring.
Unfortunately, it has naturalized throughout much of the eastern United States. It is now a common sight along roadways, forest edges, and any other nearby unmanaged area where it spreads rapidly. Callery pear has very brittle wood and unpleasant-smelling flowers. It spreads by both root suckers and self-seeding, outcompeting native species.
Alternative: Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is an excellent alternative for Callery pear. Serviceberry is native to eastern North America, is easy to grow, and produces copious fragrant white flowers each spring, attracting plenty of pollinators.
Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) is a vigorous, sun-loving plant from Europe and Asia. The showy pinkish-purple flowers are attractive, but the leaves are very prickly, and these plants spread like wildfire, colonizing fields, pastures, fencerows, and roadsides by vigorous self-seeding. Once established, they are extremely difficult to remove because of their persistent growth.
Alternative: Are you looking for some quick color for your garden? Zinnias (Zinnia elegans) are showy, easy-to-grow annuals that come in a rainbow assortment of colors. Zinnias are fast-growing, have a long blooming period, and attract both hummingbirds and butterflies.
Chinese silvergrass (Miscanthus sinensis) is a tall ornamental grass native to Asia. This plant looks beautiful in the garden but is a menace to the ecosystem.
It spreads quickly by seed, creating dense colonies that displace native vegetation and reduce species diversity. It also creates massive clusters of dry vegetation, which poses a fire hazard along roadways and in fields where it has become established.
Alternative: Are you looking for a well-behaved ornamental grass? Try feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’). Feather reed grass grows up to 5 feet tall and is not invasive. The flowers create the illusion of a thick, creamy-colored haze across the tops of these plants.
The common periwinkle (Vinca minor) is a semi-evergreen ground cover from Europe and Russia. This fast-growing, vigorous vine comes to life each spring with many showy pale purple flowers.
The vines spread quickly, shading out and displacing native vegetation. Common periwinkle grows in forests, old homesites, parklands, and forest edges. Common periwinkle is readily available commercially, but there are other less invasive options.
Alternative: Do you have a moist, shaded site? Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) is a beautiful spring-blooming wildflower. This native perennial blooms in the spring with plenty of graceful pinkish-purple, bell-shaped flowers. The vegetation goes dormant in the summer, so pair it with some ferns for long-season shade-garden interest.
Crown vetch (Coronilla varia) is an herbaceous perennial legume native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. Crown vetch has lacy, fern-like leaves and showy pinkish spring-blooming flowers. You can find it growing as a ground cover, for erosion control, and as a green fertilizer intercrop.
Unfortunately, it spreads easily by self-seeding and has become invasive throughout the United States. It is a common sight in fields, pastures, and along roadways.
Alternative: Are you looking for some pretty purple perennial flowers? Try anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) as an alternative. This minty plant blooms throughout the summer with pretty, pale purple flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.
English Ivy (Hedera helix) is one of the most familiar invasive species. This vigorously growing evergreen vine originated in Europe and has been widely used as a groundcover for landscaping projects.
A single vine can grow 80 feet long, and as it grows, it produces many offshoots from its roots, covering nearby trees and buildings as well as the ground. Trees covered by English ivy often eventually die. Worse, it can quickly root from even just a trimming that didn’t make it into the yard waste bin!
Alternative: Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) is a native vine with beautiful yellow and orange trumpet-like flowers. Crossvine is happy to trail along on the ground or grow up a trellis, but it won’t get out of hand or spread aggressively.
Fig buttercup (Ficaria verna) is an herbaceous perennial native to Europe and Asia. It has stiff, glossy leaves and yellow spring-blooming flowers.
This plant is low-growing and often used as a ground cover, but can quickly get out of hand. It has aggressive, weedy tendencies and spreads quickly by rhizomes and self-seeding. It will grow in sun or shade and can be found in urban areas, woodlands, and along roadsides and other disturbed areas.
Alternative: Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) is a low-maintenance perennial with showy yellow flowers. Coreopsis makes a great plant for borders and edges and attracts plenty of pollinators. There are many attractive varieties of coreopsis to choose from.
Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is a smaller deciduous shrub native to Japan. It has been widely used as a hedge and landscaping plant. It is best known for its colorful foliage, showy white flowers, and attractive red fruits.
Plants grow densely, and as birds eat the fruits and spread the seeds, Japanese barberry develops into thickets, crowding out native vegetation.
Alternative: If you are looking for an attractive shrub, look no further than the native highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). Pollinators love the spring-blooming bell-like flowers, people and birds love to eat the sweet summer fruits, and blueberries are beautiful landscaping plants with showy red fall foliage!
Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is widespread, growing along woodland edges, roadsides, urban parks, and disturbed areas. It is best recognized by its fragrant white and creamy-colored flowers that bloom throughout the summer months. A common garden addition because it has beautiful flowers, this vine can become quite invasive.
Japanese honeysuckle can spread aggressively by seed, and birds further the spread by eating the small red fruits. This plant has the unfortunate ability to climb up and strangle young trees.
Alternative: Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is a native vine with superb landscaping value. Coral honeysuckle blooms throughout the summer with beautiful red tubular flowers that are a favorite of hummingbirds. This vine grows vigorously where you plant it but won’t take over your yard.
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is a deciduous shrub-like plant native to eastern Asia. This plant has rows of heart-shaped leaves with thin finger-like clusters of pink or white flowers in mid-summer. It has been used for hedges and ornamental plantings but spreads rapidly by rhizomes and by seeds.
Once established, it creates dense masses that completely block out other species. It is particularly prevalent along roadsides and other disturbed areas.
Alternative: Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) is a small to medium-sized shrub with good ornamental value. Its rounded clusters of showy white flowers bloom in late spring and look lovely as part of a hedgerow.
Kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobara) is a common sight growing along highways and roadsides, blanketing vast vegetation and powerlines. This vine was imported from Asia as a landscaping plant, appreciated for its fragrant purple flowers and ability to grow well under any conditions.
It has naturalized and become invasive throughout much of the eastern United States, spreading easily by seed. As it spreads, it easily outcompetes and suffocates native plants. It doesn’t stop at suffocating native plants, however. This vigorous vine will try to cover everything, including your home!
Alternative: Would you like a native vine with pretty purple flowers? Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) blooms each summer with its large, showy purple and white flowers. The flowers attract pollinators, and this plant is also a butterfly larval host plant.
Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is a deciduous shrub native to Asia. This plant produces fragrant, showy flowers and has been used for landscaping and hedges. It quickly escapes cultivation, however, spreading by root sprouts and self-seeding.
Eventually, it develops dense thickets in fields, pastures, and woodland edges that can impede wildlife movement and compete with native vegetation. Multiflora rose is an invasive species in much of the eastern United States.
Alternative: New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a great substitute for multiflora rose. New Jersey tea is a small deciduous shrub native to eastern North America. It is easy to grow and produces showy white spring-blooming flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. If you’d like to stick to roses, many wild rose species will grow well in a backyard garden.
Nandina (Nandina domestica), also known as heavenly bamboo, is an evergreen shrub native to India and Japan. It is commonly used as a landscaping plant because it is easy to grow and has attractive red fruits that persist for a long time on the plant.
Once established, clusters of nandina will spread to compete with native species. Birds further the spread of these plants by eating the fruits and dispersing them into surrounding woodlands, edges, and urban landscapes.
Alternative: Deciduous holly (Ilex verticillata) is a large shrub or small tree native to eastern North America. It blooms in the summer and then, by fall, is laden with bright red showy fruits that attract many fruit-eating birds.
Norway maple (Acer platanoides) is a large shade tree native to Europe and the Middle East. It has been used as an ornamental landscape tree but has become invasive, primarily in the more northern United States.
Norway maple spreads primarily by its prolific production of windblown seeds. As these trees move into natural forested habitats, they compete with native species and can steal the nutrients native plants need to survive.
Alternative: If you like maple trees, grow a red maple (Acer rubrum) instead. Red maple is an attractive, medium-sized native tree that grows quickly. You’ll love the showy fall foliage in shades of yellow, orange, and red.
Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is a fast-growing vine native to Asia. This plant has been used for landscaping and is appreciated for its showy fall fruit capsules. Birds eat the fruits and thus distribute the seeds into nearby forests.
Oriental bittersweet is a woody climbing vine that will climb tall trees, girdling them and eventually killing them. This plant has naturalized and is now widespread throughout the eastern United States.
Alternative: If you like the looks of the Oriental bittersweet but want something less invasive, grow the American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) instead. This woody vine also has showy red fall fruits eaten by birds, but it does not spread aggressively.
Phragmites (Phragmites australis ssp. australis) is a tall invasive grass very common in the upper Midwest. Plants can grow 10 to 15 feet tall and develop feathery seedheads mid-summer.
You may see it in and around wetlands, shorelines, roadside ditches, or any low, wet area. It spreads quickly by seed and rhizomes, creating immensely dense stands of vegetation that choke out native species, clog waterways, and obstruct roadway views.
Alternative: If you are looking for a taller variety of ornamental grass that isn’t invasive, try ‘First Knight’ fountain grass (Pennisetum ‘First Knight’). This beautiful ornamental grass grows up to 5 feet tall, has colorful purple-green leaves, and can be easily grown as an annual in most climates.
Privet (Ligustrum spp.) is a large shrub native to Europe, northern Africa, and Asia. This plant was imported as a hedge plant and erosion control but has since naturalized widely throughout the eastern United States and is considered an invasive species in several central and eastern states.
Privet has semi-evergreen foliage in warmer climates and blooms in the spring. By late summer, these plants are dripping with small round fruits that persist into the winter months as a favorite food for birds, who then help spread the seeds. Privet invades urban landscapes, woodlands, parks, and fields, aggressively competing for space with native vegetation.
Alternative: Would you like a well-behaved shrub with beautiful late-season fruits? American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a medium-sized native shrub that produces showy clusters of round pinkish-purple fruits late in the season.
Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is an herbaceous perennial native to Europe and Asia. It blooms throughout the summer with bright and showy magenta-colored flowers.
Purple loosestrife was introduced as a showy water plant but has escaped cultivation and invaded wetlands throughout the midwestern states. Plants self-seed prolifically, particularly in wet soils, and are further spread by flooding.
Alternative: Looking for a good plant for a consistently moist spot or rain garden? Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a native wildflower that thrives in moist soil. It blooms in mid-summer, and pollinators love the showy, large pink flower clusters.
Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila) is a large deciduous tree native to Siberia and China. It grows quickly and prolifically, tolerating a wide range of conditions, which allows it to spread freely.
This tree reproduces and spreads primarily by windblown seeds. As the seeds fall to the ground, they can create dense stands of Siberian elm, directly competing with native tree species.
Alternative: Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is a hardy native tree that is tolerant of various growing conditions. Hackberry makes a good shade tree, and birds enjoy eating its small brownish-red fruits.
Spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe ssp micranthos) is a thistle-like plant native to Europe and Asia. It has silvery-green leaves and showy pink flowers that bloom in mid-summer. This plant spreads rapidly by seed and has invaded fields, pastures, roadsides, and other sunny, disturbed habitats.
It is capable of growing into dense stands and competes with native vegetation. This plant is widely distributed across the United States, particularly in the more northern states.
Alternative: If you’re looking for a pretty pink flower with lots of curb appeal, try celosia (Celosia spp.). These annual plants are easily grown from seed in any sunny location. The colorful flowers are sure to make an impact!
Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) is an ornamental ground cover native to Asia. This creeping vine has evergreen foliage and has been widely used as a landscaping plant. Vines tolerate a broad range of growing conditions, including full shade.
In forested areas, they not only cover the ground but they will also creep up tree trunks. Wintercreepers spread by vigorous vegetative growth and self-seeding, creating expansive mats of foliage that compete with native species.
Alternative: Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is a perennial native groundcover. This plant prefers a shaded habitat with moist soil. In ideal conditions, it is a low-maintenance foliage plant that can be enjoyed for its dense masses of heart-shaped leaves.
Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis or Wisteria floribunda) is an easily recognized vine from Asia. In late spring or early summer, wisteria blooms with large clusters of showy, fragrant purple flowers.
This plant has been popularly used as a climbing landscaping vine for trellises and arbors, but it spreads aggressively by runners and self-seeding. Once established in a location, it climbs any nearby trees and shrubbery, effectively smothering whatever it covers.
Alternative: The American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) is native to the eastern United States. While this plant grows quickly, it is less aggressive than the Asian species. American wisteria has beautiful fragrant purple flowers and is the host plant of the marine blue butterfly.
Frequently Asked Questions
What should I do about invasive species already growing in my garden?
If you already have an invasive species in your landscape, you will ultimately need to make the decision that makes the most sense to you. You can try to remove it, or you can try to control it. If you decide to remove it, you can expect it to take some time and effort, especially if it has already started to dominate your landscape. If you want to keep it, you will probably want to keep it well contained. One way to do this is deadhead spent flowers to prevent it from going to seed and spreading. Deadheading also prevents fruit development on berry-producing varieties.
How can I keep invasive species out of my yard?
The best way to keep invasive species out of your yard is to not plant them. Many other factors, however, are beyond your control. If invasive species are in the area, they will likely spread by seed dispersed from birds, mammals, wind, or water. If you notice invasive plants starting to grow, remove them as soon as possible to prevent them from getting established and spreading more.
Is butterfly bush good or bad for butterflies?
This is a common question. Butterflies and pollinators like butterfly bush flowers as a nectar source, but they don’t provide habitat or host their larvae. If you are planting butterfly bushes to attract pollinators, better options are available. Native pollinator-friendly plants that double as food sources for butterfly caterpillars are the best option because they support butterflies during their entire life cycle. If butterfly bush starts spreading, it will displace native species, and this is bad for butterflies and the natural balance of the ecosystem.
Invasive species are everywhere, but they don’t have to dominate your landscape. Learn to recognize these plants and then work to remove them to build your own healthy and well-balanced ecosystem in your yard. As you choose plants for your landscape, look for species that you appreciate looking at, that work well in your specific environmental conditions, and that benefit birds and butterflies. Native plants are always a great option, but you can add non-native species as well. Just keep the invasives out and replace them with something even better!