Southeast Regional Reports

Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants in the Southeast

Save yourself the pain of managing an aggressive takeover, and plant one of these instead

‘Ruby Spice’ summersweet
‘Ruby Spice’ summersweet (Clethra alnifolia 'Ruby Spice', Zones 4-8) is a flowering shrub that pollinators love. It’s a great substitute for Japanese spirea, which tends to take over in mountain areas. Photo: Paula Gross

Say the words “invasive plant” and you’ll get a wide range of reactions, from horror to defensiveness to irritation to confusion. But rarely will you get no reaction at all. That’s because, as with any widespread issue that gets press, the severity and complexity of the problem arouses emotions. As cultivators of plants, we find ourselves involved in the practical side of this global issue, but with local concerns. Everyone has seen the kudzu monsters, tree-of-heaven corridors, or common reed coastal takeovers, but you’d be very hard-pressed to find any of these plants for sale to the public. Yet equally invasive plants such as Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense), porcelain berry vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), or Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) are still found in the aisles of big box stores and nurseries. And this is where gardening comes face-to-face with the issue.

A plant is generally considered invasive if it is not native to the local ecosystem and if its introduction and subsequent spread causes environmental and/or economic harm. The way I put it to my young son is that these are “bully plants”—they take over, suck up resources, and don’t allow other plants, and the insects and other creatures that depend on those plants, to grow there.

Chinese privet invasion Chinese privet
Here we can see Chinese privet that has completely taken over this woodland area, preventing native species from growing (left), and yet I still found it available for purchase at the nursery section of a local big box store (right). Photos: Paula Gross

I could spend many words on the science of invasive species, but I want to head straight to the practical side of what it means for us gardeners. When it comes to purchasing and planting known invasive species, my personal bottom line is “Just don’t do it.” What you gain (or believe you are gaining) is simply not worth it—not only for your own garden and future maintenance, but for the unmanaged surrounding landscapes that don’t have a loving gardener to keep things in check. We are all connected in our local ecosystems, and our health and longevity depend on seeing the bigger picture.

Below I’ve included a chart of invasive species and native Southeastern alternatives. In this chart I’m covering the entire Southeast from mountains to sea, which encompasses a lot of diverse ecosystems! What is invasive in one area may not be so in another. However, with climate changes, those traditional boundaries are changing. So take my list as a jumping-off point. If you see something you recognize, dig a little deeper to learn of the particulars of that plant in your corner of the Southeast. There are many more native alternatives than the ones I’ve listed, as well as nonnative options. Realize that plenty of nonnative plants show no tendency to be invasive and are fine garden plants. So if you’ve got a new plant in mind, just do a quick Google search to verify how it’s been behaving in your ecological neighborhood, or check it here.

Invasive woody species for sale

Native alternatives

Thorny olive
Thorny olive. Photo: Paula Gross

‘Nana’ yaupon holly
‘Nana’ yaupon holly. Photo: Steve Aitken
  • Autumn olive (Elaeagnus pungens)
  • Thorny olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)
  • Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria, Zones 6–9)
  • Smooth witherod vibernum (Viburnum nudum, Zones 5–9)

Chinese privet taking over
Chinese privet. Photo: Paula Gross

Inkberry. Photo: Michelle Gervais
  • Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense)
  • Glossy privet (Ligustrum japonica)
  • Inkberry (Ilex glabra, Zones 6–10)
  • Cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana, Zones 7–10)

Nandina cv.
Nandina cv. Photo: Mary Morgan

‘Winter Red’ winterberry
‘Winter Red’ winterberry. Photo: Jennifer Benner
  • Nandina (Nandina domestica)—Fruiting cultivars only
  • For berries: Winterberry (Ilex verticallata, Zones 5–8)—Add one male cultivar for every six females
  • For evergreen color in part shade: ‘Florida Sunshine’ small anise tree (Illicium parviflorum ‘Florida Sunshine’, Zones 7–9)

Callery pear
Callery pear. Photo: Paula Gross

Eastern redbud
Eastern redbud. Photo: Paula Gross
  • Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’ and other cultivars)
  • For spring flowers: Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis, Zones 6–9)
  • For fall color and size: Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica, Zones 6–9)

‘Goldflame’ Japanese spirea
‘Goldflame’ Japanese spirea. Photo: Michelle Gervais

'Sixteen Candles’ summersweet
‘Sixteen Candles’ summersweet. Photo: Nancy J. Ondra
  • Japanese spirea (Spiraea japonica, Zones 4–9)—In mountain areas
  • Dwarf summersweet (Clethra alnifolia ‘Crystalina’ or ‘Sixteen Candles’, Zones 5–9)

Invasive vines for sale

Native alternatives

Japanese honeysuckle
Japanese honeysuckle. Photo: Paula Gross

Coral honeysuckle
Coral honeysuckle. Photo: Paula Gross
  • Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis)
  • Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)
  • Variegated porcelain berry vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata var. maximowiczii ‘Elegans’)
  • Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
  • American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens, Zones 5–9)
  • Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata, Zones 5–9)
  • Yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens, Zones 7–9)
  • Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens, Zones 4–9)

Invasive ground covers for sale

Native alternatives

English ivy
English ivy. Photo: Michelle Gervais

Alleghany spurge
Alleghany spurge. Photo: Paula Gross
  • English ivy (Hedera helix)
  • Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei)
  • Quick spreading but deciduous: Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadense, Zones 4–8)
  • Evergreen, but slower: Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens, Zones 5–9)

Invasive herbaceous species for sale

Native alternatives

‘Dixieland’ miscanthus
‘Dixieland’ miscanthus. Photo: Michelle Gervais

Pink muhly grass
Pink muhly grass. Photo: Paula Gross
  • Miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis)
  • Tall: Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum, Zones 5–9)
  • Mounding: Pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris, Zones 6–10)

‘Rubra’ Japanese blood grass
‘Rubra’ Japanese blood grass. Photo: Michelle Gervais

‘Cheyenne Sky’ switchgrass
‘Cheyenne Sky’ switchgrass. Photo: Michelle Gervais
  • ‘Rubra’ Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’)
  • Red switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ or ‘Cheyenne Sky’, Zones 5–9)

Periwinkle. Photo: Paula Gross

Creeping phlox
Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera). Photo: Paula Gross
  • Periwinkle (Vinca major and Vinca minor)
  • For bloom: Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata, Zones 3–9 or Phlox stolonifera, Zones 5–9)
  • For quick spreading: Creeping goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum ‘Eco-Lacquered Spider’, Zones 5–9)


Paula Gross is the former assistant director of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte Botanical Gardens.

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