Steer clear of invasive plants

Published 10:07 pm Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Fall is a time for a fresh start in our gardens and yards.

There are many plants you can choose that will look great in your yard and benefit your neighborhood wildlife and ecology. And there are quite a few to steer clear of.

We’ve all got some of that stuff in our yards. Some of it was here when we got here. Some of it, we bought or it was given to us. And some of it just showed up.

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We are by no means purists when it comes to our yard. Our interests have only recently turned to gardening with native plants.

Native plants are hard to find at most garden centers, and you won’t see too many of them in the glossy magazines. Most of the natives we’ve read about are found in ditches and along roadsides in most areas of Virginia. Some folks call ‘em weeds.

The fact of the matter is that one person’s weed is another person’s botanical delight — as we found out at a native plant sale this past weekend at the Virginia Living Museum, where we purchased a few.

On the other hand, a plant from another country can turn out to be an invasive to our area if we don’t carefully consider what we bring home from the garden center — or for that matter where we have had our feet when we take a hike or our boat when we go out on our lakes and rivers.

In recent days as we have walked our favorite places here in Suffolk, we have noticed more and more invasive plants on the land and water. Maybe it is because we have been focusing our attention on the ditches and roadsides where native species should abound.

It appears to us that, more and more, we see areas where native plants are being edged out and replaced by non-natives. There are also a lot of plants out there that have been around so long that you wouldn’t believe they are not native — plants like mimosa, English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle and Japanese wisteria, to name a few.

Then there are some really bad ones. Alligator weed and stilt grass are two that come to mind immediately and need everyone’s attention.

The tricky part with non-native invasive plants is that they go unnoticed in the landscape, where they grow unchecked, because they don’t have any natural insects or predators to eat them, or diseases that could kill them in their new home away from home. Their only opposition is by concerned citizens and local agencies.

Alligator weed is native to South America and is abundant in Lake Meade and many other fresh water bodies around the area. It can grow in both fresh and slightly brackish water. It can be found in marshes, lakes, rivers, streams, ditches, and any wet soil.

It forms thick mats that can be three-feet thick and hundreds of square feet in area that float freely or are attached to the shore. These mats shade out native aquatic plants. We have seen large floating islands of this stuff traveling up and down Lake Meade, blown by the wind.

Its stems are very tender and break off easily to float away and take root. It has to be hand-pulled, dried and then bagged and disposed of. All the little pieces have to be skimmed out of the water. It is a labor-intensive job.

Stilt grass is a fluffy-looking bright-green grass that looks like a mini bamboo ground cover from Asia. It is literally everywhere and abundant at all the local wooded parks and trails we visit in Suffolk. It loves sunny spots, shady places, dry places, soggy places — it thrives in every condition.

Each individual plant can produce up to 1,000 seeds that can remain viable in the soil for three years. The plant breaks off easily when you try to pull it. The only way to get rid of it is to hand-pull and spray with herbicides.

You don’t need to worry about buying stilt grass or alligator weed at the garden center, but there is a long list of plants you might want avoid if you don’t want to contribute to the problem of invasive species.

The Suffolk Master Gardeners are a great group to help get you on the right track. There are many resources from the Department of Agriculture, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Forest Service that list native and non-native plants.

So, do your homework before you go to the garden center and ask questions about the plants you are getting ready to buy.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at