Can Native Plants Be Invasive?

You’ve probably heard terms like native plants, exotic plants, and invasive species. But do you know what these terms mean and whether or not they overlap? In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen explores some differences between native and exotic species and explains what makes a plant invasive.

A close-up of flowering Bee Balm, Monarda Didyma. Vibrant pink petals burst forth from the center, attracting bees and butterflies alike. Surrounding the blooms, lush green leaves provide a verdant backdrop, enhancing the flower's beauty.

Contents

Gardeners delight in creating beautiful and diverse landscapes. If you have any mix of fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, shrubs, and trees, you probably have both native and exotic species. Over time, you’ll notice that some plants are very easy to manage, while others seem to get out of control or fail to thrive.

Different gardening styles lend themselves to using different selections of plants. A native garden, for example, would focus exclusively on plants that grow naturally in your region before human interference. On the other hand, a Japanese garden would incorporate plants from Japan, and a cottage garden might use an assortment of plants from Europe and around the world. Your garden may have diverse origins.

While native plants can be wonderful to work with and provide critical resources for our local ecosystems, not all of them are well-behaved. Conversely, invasive plants generally originate from other places, but not all exotic species are invasive. So how can you tell one from another, and how can you make the best choices about what to grow in your garden?

Let’s take a closer look at each plant classification, and why the choices we make for our gardens matters.

Purple Coneflower

Purple Coneflower Echinacea Seeds

Our Rating

Purple Coneflower Echinacea Seeds

Rocky Mountain Penstemon

Rocky Mountain Blue Penstemon Seeds

Our Rating

Rocky Mountain Penstemon Seeds

Anise Hyssop Agastache

Anise Hyssop Seeds

Our Rating

Anise Hyssop Agastache Seeds

The Short Answer

The short answer is no. Aggressively growing native plants are not technically “invasive” because they have always been here. They are not invading a new habitat or negatively impacting local ecosystems. However, certain native species can be viewed as a nuisance if they are overly vigorous in a landscaped setting. Any plant that grows aggressively and is difficult to control can require extra effort from the gardener to keep in check.

The Long Answer

Campsis displays trumpet-shaped, orange to red flowers and pinnate leaves with serrated edges.
Research plant origins and spread to distinguish between native and invasive species.

As you’re planning your garden or looking at the species that are currently in your yard, you may be wondering about what you have or what you should plant next. Perhaps you’ve noticed that some plants seem to take over without any extra help, while others need to be carefully coaxed along. Are these plants native? Are they invasive? Does it really matter?

You can’t tell the difference between a native, exotic, or invasive plant just by looking at it. The only way to know a plant’s origins is to do a little research about the specific species you’re trying to grow. Find out where the plant’s native range is. You may be surprised at what you learn. 

Let’s look at a few important definitions, along with some examples of each.

Native

Echinacea purpurea showcases large, daisy-like flowers with purple petals and prominent, spiky, orange-brown centers, along with lance-shaped, dark green leaves.
Purple Coneflower attracts butterflies with its long blooming period in grasslands.

Native plants are those species that historically existed in their region before humans settled and colonized different parts of the world, bringing plants from one region to another. They are specially adapted to their natural habitats and have evolved to coexist with the local wildlife and thrive in the natural climate of their region. Each region has its own species, and this wide diversity helps create natural and stable ecosystems throughout the world.

They may be larval host plants for certain varieties of butterfly or moth. They may provide a food source for local birds or attract beneficial predator insects that eat pests in your garden. Most require no fertilization or supplemental water once established. These species have a long list of benefits.

Here are a few examples of easy-to-grow yet non-aggressive US-native garden options that are excellent choices for your landscape. These plants are all naturally occurring in different regions of the United States and are highly ornamental and useful for a variety of landscaping projects.

Purple Coneflower
Echinacea purpurea
Originating in the grasslands of eastern North America, this beautiful perennial wildflower attracts a multitude of butterflies and other pollinators during its long blooming period.
Red Columbine
Aquilegia canadensis
Red columbine is from eastern North America. This perennial wildflower blooms early in the spring and comes back year after year. Red columbine will readily reseed itself but remains easy to control.
Rocky Mountain Penstemon
Penstemon strictus
Rocky Mountain penstemon grows naturally in the southwestern United States. This dazzling blue penstemon variety is a long-lived wildflower and a great choice for your butterfly garden.
Pink Muhlygrass
Muhlenbergia capillaris
Pink muhlygrass is an extremely showy ornamental grass from the west-central United States. It will occasionally reseed itself and form large, hardy clumps without being aggressive or spreading beyond cultivation.
Anise Hyssop
Agastache foeniculum
Anise hyssop is from the northern United States and southern Canada. This perennial wildflower has showy purple blooms and is a hummingbird and butterfly favorite.

Non-native

Hydrangea macrophylla has large, rounded clusters of flowers in shades of pink, and broad, ovate leaves with serrated edges.
Hydrangeas from Asia offer vibrant colors without spreading uncontrollably.

Non-native plants are those that were introduced by humans. More specifically, these plants were transferred from one area of the world to another. Humans have introduced plants for many reasons, including plants used as ornamental species or as agricultural crops. Sometimes, they are accidentally introduced and spread to new areas. Not all of these exotic plants are aggressive or invasive when moved to a new region.

Here are a few examples of exotic species that tend to be well-behaved and much-loved garden plants. They may not be naturally-occurring in the region where you live, but you can still safely grow them without worrying about them getting out of control and trying to take over your garden (along with your neighbor’s yard and the woods down the road).

Well-behaved non-native US landscaping plants: 

Dahlia 
Dahlia spp.
Dahlias are from Central and South America. They are somewhat picky about their growing conditions and don’t spread aggressively in most home garden settings.
Bigleaf Hydrangea
Hydrangea macrophylla
This popular garden shrub is from Asia and comes in a variety of beautiful and bright colors. Hydrangeas stay where you put them and don’t spread beyond their initial plot.
English Lavender
Lavandula angustifolia
English lavender grows naturally in the Mediterranean region. This compact, shrubby, evergreen perennial is a favorite in herb gardens. It grows in neat clumps, and while it may occasionally self-seed, it never grows out of control.
African Marigold
Tagetes erecta
Despite its name, African marigold is a well-loved, showy annual flower that originates in Mexico. It is easy to grow and produces an abundance of brightly colored flowers that last through the summer. Plants may occasionally self-seed and come back the following year, but they aren’t considered invasive.
Zinnia
Zinnia elegans
Zinnias come from Mexico and have been extensively cultivated. These annual garden favorites produce long-lasting colorful flowers that are a pollinator magnet.

Invasive

Bradford Pear Trees grow in rows in a large park, producing abundant clusters of small, white flowers covering the bare branches.
Bradford Pear trees invade urban and disturbed areas rapidly.

Invasive plants are generally defined as those that did not exist naturally in a particular region without human introduction. They may have escaped cultivation and multiply rapidly to colonize new areas. Many cause environmental harm and disruptions to natural ecosystems by outcompeting native species. A species may also be considered invasive if it causes economic harm, such as extensive interference with human activities, agriculture, and livestock.

If an exotic species naturalizes in a new area and starts to grow and reproduce on its own, it isn’t automatically considered invasive. It only becomes invasive if it interferes with and causes economic or environmental harm in its new area. If a plant causes significant disruptions to the natural environment, a state may include it on its list of invasive species and specifically request that people avoid planting it.

Here are a few examples of exotic invasive species. Even though some of these species are commonly available in garden centers, it is important to select plants that won’t take over your yard or spread aggressively into nearby natural areas.

These are just a few of the many common and widespread invasive species. Do not grow these invasive species in your US yard:

English Ivy
Hedera helix
English ivy is an aggressive ground cover that will grow just about anywhere and, once established, is very difficult to eradicate. It easily smothers surrounding vegetation on the ground and even outcompetes trees as it climbs into the forest canopy.
Tree of Heaven
Ailanthus altissima
This small tree is fast-growing and weedy. It reproduces quickly and spreads readily. It has invaded habitats across North America and outcompetes local species.
Chinese Wisteria
Wisteria sinensis
Chinese wisteria is grown for its colorful and fragrant purple flowers. Unfortunately, it spreads quickly by root suckers and self-seeding and can quickly take over nearby natural areas. In highly infested areas, it covers all surrounding vegetation with a thick carpet of foliage.
Bradford Pear
Pyrus calleryana
These ornamental trees were once widely used along roadways and as a fast-growing foundation tree in new housing developments. It quickly escaped cultivation and now invades disturbed areas, roadsides, and urban areas. Also known as Callery pear. There are many excellent non-invasive alternatives to Bradford pear.
Bamboo
Phyllostachys spp.
Bamboo is a giant grass. This giant bamboo species from Asia becomes almost impossible to control once established in an area, quickly choking out other vegetation. There are a few native bamboo species, but they are hard to find. There are also many other invasive grasses to avoid.

Aggressive

Solidago canadensis features tall, slender stems topped with dense clusters of tiny, bright yellow flowers and narrow, lance-shaped leaves.
Goldenrod blooms beautifully in fall and spreads rapidly across landscapes.

Some plants may grow aggressively but are not technically invasive. Aggressive plants tend to grow in a wide range of conditions and are not overly picky about sunlight, soil quality, or moisture. Aggressive plants generally grow fast and reproduce quickly

The following are some native species with aggressive tendencies. While they may have originated in a particular region and have many valuable qualities, they still exhibit aggressive growth habits. It’s fine if you want to try growing these species in your yard. Most of them are very easy to grow, but they can also be difficult to control. 

US-native species with aggressive tendencies:

Trumpet Creeper
Campsis radicans
Trumpet creeper is from the southeastern United States. It is common and widespread, growing very quickly into large, spreading vines that cover the ground and climb up trees.
Canada Goldenrod 
Solidago canadensis
Canada goldenrod is one of many beautiful fall-blooming perennial goldenrod species. It is widely distributed throughout the United States and develops massive colonies that spread quickly by self-seeding and rhizomes.
Poison Ivy
Toxicodendron radicans
Many people would like to think of poison ivy as an invasive species; it grows aggressively and causes itchy skin reactions. Poison ivy grows almost everywhere and is difficult to control, but this woody vine is actually native throughout the United States and southern Canada. You probably wouldn’t intentionally grow poison ivy in your yard, but it may show up on its own, even if you didn’t plant it!
Staghorn Sumac
Rhus typhina
Staghorn sumac originates in eastern North America. This deciduous shrub is showy and attracts birds and butterflies, but it also grows aggressively to form dense colonies, spreading by suckering roots and shading out neighboring vegetation.
Boxelder
Acer negundo
Boxelder is a deciduous tree in the maple family. It is a very common tree found throughout most of North America. These trees grow quickly and reproduce quickly, colonizing disturbed habitats.

What Are the Major Problems With Growing Invasive Plants?

Hedera helix climbing along a wooden fence in the garden, characterized by its lobed, dark green leaves with light veins.
Choosing exotic invasives can lead to widespread ecological challenges.

People often choose to grow exotic invasive species. They may not realize the plant they’ve chosen is invasive, or they may simply like the way it looks. Regardless of why you have an invasive plant in your yard, the resulting issues will be similar. 

If a particular plant species is invasive in your area, this means it is likely to grow, reproduce, and spread. While it’s in your yard, you may find it difficult to control. Once it escapes from your yard and into nearby natural areas, it will become almost impossible to control. Invasive plants have the ability to colonize new areas quickly, and getting rid of them is no easy task!

Vines with an invasive nature sometimes grow so fast that they cover and smother any nearby vegetation, including flowers, shrubs, and even trees. Invasive shrubs and trees grow quickly and spread quickly, competing with native shrubs and trees while generally not offering much to benefit the local wildlife. Invasive grasses, annuals, and perennials spread rampantly and choke waterways, outcompete local wildflowers and grasses, and reduce species diversity in the areas they invade.

Can a Plant Be Native in One Area and Invasive in Another?

Erigeron canadensis shows slender, upright stems with small, linear leaves and tiny, white to pale pink flowers forming in loose clusters.
A plant’s invasiveness depends on its adaptability to local climates.

Yes. Every pure plant species (not a hybrid or cultivar) has a native origin. It will not be considered an invasive species in its naturally occurring region, as it provides benefits to the local ecosystem. If you then transport that plant to another region or another country where it thrives, grows aggressively, and competes with local species for space and resources, it’s invasive in that new area

North America is a big place with very diverse climates. There are many species that are considered invasive in the Pacific Northwest, for example, that wouldn’t be invasive in Florida. These plants simply thrive in one climate and don’t grow well or reproduce successfully in other climates. So yes, a plant can be invasive in some areas but not others. 

What Are Some Benefits of Growing Native Plants?

Prairie clovers exhibit dense spikes of small, tubular flowers in shades of purple, and have compound leaves with multiple narrow leaflets.
Opt for the low-maintenance beauty and ecological benefits of regionally-adapted species.

There are plenty of benefits to growing native plants.

  • They are well adapted to their natural environments, making them easy to grow and low-maintenance.
  • They provide valuable food resources for local birds, small animals, and insects. They are essential host plants for the caterpillars of butterfly species.
  • They don’t typically require any extra chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
  • They provide valuable ecological services, such as making oxygen and filtering groundwater.
  • They don’t require as much water as exotic species because they are already adapted to local conditions.
  • They’re beautiful! They add color, texture, and plenty of ornamental value to the landscape.

Landscaping With Native Plants

A delightful garden with flowering native and non-native plants including Agastache, Garden phlox, Purple coneflower, Hydrangea, Petunia and more.
Choose species tailored to your local climate for thriving gardens.

No matter where you live, there are a wide variety of plants that originated in your area. They include all the naturally occurring vegetation, including trees, shrubs, forbs, ferns, vines, and even mosses. The plants native to Florida will be different from those that occur naturally in California, and they will be adapted to a different climate and environmental conditions.

The important thing when landscaping with native plants is to choose species that will thrive in your local area. Learn your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, study the sun and soil conditions in your yard, and think about how much space you have available to add new plants before making your selections.

The best thing about a regionally-adapted garden is that you can find species to grow in any conditions. There are those that thrive in full sun and full shade, those that prefer wet soils, and those that need dry soils. There are edible varieties and many that are highly ornamental; you can incorporate them into any garden setting!

Final Thoughts

If you want your garden to have the biggest beneficial impact on the environment, stick with native vines, grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees whenever possible. They will typically be easy to grow, low-maintenance, attractive, and beneficial. It’s okay to mix native and exotic species if you’d like to grow some of each.

All plants are designed to reproduce, but any plant that’s an aggressive grower and spreader has the potential to be a nuisance in your landscape, regardless of its native status. Regardless of which plants you choose, avoid growing invasive species in your landscape. You’ll thank yourself later!

SHARE THIS POST
A blue and yellow Swallowtail butterfly perches on the golden center of a violet-hued zinnia.

Gardening Tips

15 Plants to Grow This Pollinator Week

Are you wondering what you can do this Pollinator Week to help sustain and protect integral pollinator populations? In this article, gardening expert and beekeeper Melissa Strauss shares some of her favorite pollinator plants for your garden.

Vibrant purple turtlehead flowers bloom gracefully against a backdrop of rich green foliage, creating a picturesque scene of natural beauty in a garden.

Gardening Tips

21 Plants that Thrive in Wet Soil

Wet, boggy, poorly drained gardens or pots missing adequate drainage are conditions that many gardeners consider problems, but for these plants, sopping wet soil is a positive, not a negative. Garden expert Christina Conner wades through 21 plants for rain gardens and swampy soils.

beneficial weeds. Close-up of flowering Chickweed plants (Stellaria media) in a sunny garden. Chickweed is a delicate annual herb with small, oval-shaped leaves arranged in pairs along its succulent, branching stems. Its dainty white flowers, each containing five deeply notched petals.

Gardening Tips

41 Beneficial Weeds and Their Uses

While some weeds can be problematic for garden crops, weedy plants aren’t always the enemies we’ve made them out to be. Garden expert and former organic farmer Logan Hailey digs into the beneficial uses of common weeds for everything from pest control to pollinator habitat to edible nutrition and herbal remedies.

budget gardening. Close-up of a female gardener in denim overalls and a red plaid shirt digging soil in a garden bed using a garden trowel. The garden bed contains rows of Swiss Chard plants. Swiss chard plants showcase a vibrant and striking appearance with large, glossy bright green leaves and strong, succulent pale green stems.

Gardening Tips

31 Tips for Starting Your New Garden on a Budget

Are you excited about starting a new garden but intimidated by the potential cost? There are plenty of practical ways you can save money on your gardening project. Join thrifty gardening expert Liessa Bowen as she shares some of her favorite tips for gardening on a budget.

Wild Petunias display slender, lance-shaped green leaves and a delicate, funnel-shaped lavender flower with slightly ruffled edges.

Flowers

How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Wild Petunias

You are probably familiar with the colorful petunia flowers commonly sold as annuals at your local garden center. Did you know there are also wild petunias? In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen introduces these beautiful and easy-to-grow native wildflowers.