Plant this, not that
Expert Sally Cunningham offers a list of alternatives to some more invasive, "bad" plants
Virginia creeper is a native vine to try instead of wisteria
Once, there were reasons to invite English ivy to climb the brick walls of New England colleges. Once, goutweed (Bishop’s weed) seemed like a great groundcover to surround grand Buffalo mansions. Once, landscapers thrilled their customers with the bright red foliage of Burning Bush (Euonymous alatus) in autumn and wine-colored barberry all year. Once, multiflora rose was a brilliant idea for surrounding country property; my own father fell for it: it would be good for wildlife and keep the snowmobilers out of our twenty acres! That was once upon a time.
Then we learned about nonnative invasive plants, the bad boys. They crowd out native plants, which are essential cogs in the wheels of ecosystems. They grow faster and reproduce better than indigenous species and have no natural enemies—they were imported, but the creatures that eat them were not. Many of them sneaked in and successfully penetrated popular garden and landscape culture because their bad habits weren’t evident at first. Others were actually invited in because they had some obviously special features: deep green foliage, berries, good ground-covering abilities, pretty flowers, or brilliant crimson fall color. These attractive elements hid the bad news that was coming.
We know more now
Certainly we have learned a lot since those days of willy-nilly plant introductions, although we’re probably perpetuating the popularity of some new problem plants of the future. At least now, the public and the plant industry are sensitized to the concept of plant invasiveness. More people know not to plant purple loosestrife, Phragmites (Common reed grass), or Japanese honeysuckles. Many homeowners or groups mount campaigns against these and other plants (like giant hogweed, garlic mustard, and buckthorn) encroaching on private properties, roadside ditches, and parks. Some people are just learning about the invasive labeling that restricts sale of barberries and the ever popular burning bush. These are recently named restricted for sale in New York State, although they have long been recognized as serious problem plants and banned in many New England States.
This article does not name all the invasive plants of New York State; for that, see ipcnys.org. Nor do I want to justify, plant by plant, why some plants are listed as invasive, even when they’re not apparent problems in all areas. However, as a Certified Landscape and Nursery Professional (CNLP), committed naturalist, and student of ecology for at least three decades, I do attest that invasive plants are serious business. This is not the government trying to boss you around or frivolous scientists declaring arbitrary plants to be bad because they don’t like them. Deep science, cumbersome research, and lengthy analysis by unbiased academic entities produce the decisions about invasive plant categories (as well as threatened or endangered classifications). The scientists and researchers don’t wish to hurt landscaping business or retailers that are no longer able to carry popular plants. But, the problems are real and ecosystem needs are more important than ornamental plant preferences—especially when great alternatives are available.
Here are the most common landscape shrubs, trees, and vines now listed by the New York State Invasive Plant Council. They are listed because they lead to habitat degradation; loss of native fish, wildlife, insects, or trees; loss of recreational opportunities and income; crop damage; and diseases of humans and animals: Japanese wisteria, Japanese honeysuckle, Japanese knotweed, English ivy, Autumn olive, Russian olive, Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus), Japanese barberry, Asian/Oriental bittersweet, Porcelainberry, Common buckthorn, Golden bamboo, Burning bush (Euonymous alatus), Multiflora rose, Norway Maple.
If you were leaning toward one of these or have them in your yard, I suggest you replace them and seek alternatives. There are great plants you may never have heard of available in WNY nurseries and garden centers. Get a pro to help you understand your sites and suitable plants for them.
Try Fothergilla (bottom) rather than burning bush (top)
Choose these instead
When replacing problem plants, gardeners should assess the site to see what will grow there. Then ask yourself: Why was that plant chosen originally? What features made it desirable or successful? We won’t always find a substitute shrub with all the exact features of the one you are removing—say, four-by-three-feet with pink flowers in June and red leaves in fall. So don’t be too rigid. Assess characteristics you most prefer, and choose the alternative with those features.
Fall color or year-round colorful leaves
This is the lure of burning bush (Euonymous alatus) and some barberries. As subs, look at:
• Hydrangea quercifolia (Oakleaf hydrangea): Dwarf and full-sized cultivars are available, all desirable for pollinators, with great flowers, bark, shape, and huge wine-colored autumn leaves; also accepts partial shade.
• Itea virginica (Virginia sweetspire): Fragrant white flowers attract pollinators; in autumn, leaves turn bright red to orange shades; many cultivars, several heights.
• Fothergilla gardenia (Dwarf fothergilla/Witchalder): Dense, compact shrub, attractive all season with blue-green leaves, brilliant yellow or orange-red autumn color, and white bottle-brush flowers.
• Viburnums: So many viburnums are exquisite landscape plants and far superior to Burning bush and other more common shrubs. I recommend you learn about them, scout the nurseries, and check out the mature sizes shown on the labels. Many grow eight feet tall, but a few remain shorter. Their graceful shapes almost never require pruning. All have attractive flowers, berries, and fall colors.
• Physcocarpus (Ninebark): Rust, maroon, or lime-colored foliage make this a winner, but it also has spring flowers that pollinators love. New, petite cultivars are good barberry replacements.
• Aronia (Chokeberry, both black and red): A multiseason, bird-friendly shrub with flowers, berries (traditional medicinal value), and bright-red fall color.
Many invasive plants succeed because they live through extended droughts, but native species can also work well in dry locations once they are established (typically after the first three years):
• Myrica pensylvanica (Bayberry): Large shrub with glossy, gray-green leaves with the bayberry fragrance. Male and female needed to produce the berries that are used in candles and soaps.
• Hypericum kalmianum (St. Johns Wort): Short shrub with bright yellow, pollinator-attracting flowers.
• Rhus typhina, Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-low’: Sumacs are tough plants. R. typhina (Staghorn) is for country properties—a sprawling plant that helps wildlife, covers banks, and is brilliant red in fall. The short R. aromatica ‘Gro-low’ stays short, has glossy leaves, fall color, and spreads more than six feet, so it is great for banks or front edges of large landscapes.
• Viburnums: Choose your viburnum species for other benefits (size, berries, color), but many are drought tolerant once established.
Wet soils welcome several perennials as well as these shrubs:
• Clethra alnifolia (Sweet pepperbush, Summersweet clethra): For pollinators, with delightfully honey/vanilla-scented flowers, attractive leaves and shapes all season; several heights available.
• Cephalanthus occidentalis (Buttonbush): Beneficial to birds and butterflies; great next to streams or ponds.
• Cornus racemosa, C. sericea (Grey or Red Osier dogwoods): Native dogwoods have high wildlife value, and provide erosion control; they form clumps. Those with colorful twigs have high ornamental value as well, especially in groupings.
Erosion control, bank coverage
• Sambucus canadensis (Elderberry): When naturalized, this plant can provide bank stabilization, but it is so much more: benefits for pollinators, edible berries for birds and people, and excellent for a tall hedge or windbreak.
• Prunus virginiana (Chokecherry): Large plant for hedgerows or bank control, with high value for wildlife; not an ornamental specimen plant.
• Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper): In place of many invasive vines, it climbs aggressively but benefits birds, covers banks and bare soil, and is brilliant red in fall. Other native vines for similar uses are Vitis labrusca (Fox grape) and Wisteria frutescens (American wisteria).
• Others: Several shrubs listed above are also suitable for planting on banks or streamside to prevent soil erosion and water runoff, including Rhus species, shrubby dogwoods, native St. Johns wort, and Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago).
For the berries:
Did you plant barberries, porcelainberries, or Asian bittersweet for their decorative berries? Ecologically friendly and noninvasive alternatives are Virginia creeper, American bittersweet, Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) or Aronia. Even better, how about berries that are edible? Plant elderberries, serviceberries, or, (if you have room), a mulberry tree.
Beyond invasiveness, are other plants bad?
Plants may not be inherently bad, but many old familiar landscape plants aren’t very good. It’s subjective and highly variable which plants lose their usefulness or popularity, but several reasons are typical. Some plants prove not to be as pretty or low-maintenance or pest-free as advertised. Others quickly outgrow their locations, after they were purchased for a typical foundation planting or narrow bed. Some plants have become simply tiresome, after we have seen them used in front of a zillion houses in hundreds of lookalike suburbs.
In short, a bad plant is one that doesn’t work anymore. Find another plant, preferably one that benefits pollinators and offers multiple ecological and people-pleasing values.
Recommended resource: See bnriverkeeper.org to find the Western New York Guide to Native Plants for Your Garden.
Sally Cunningham, CNLP, is a horticulturist and lecturer on organic gardening, eco-friendly landscaping, and garden tourism. She consults at Lockwood’s Greenhouses and leads garden-themed trips through AAA/Horizon Club Tours (GreatGardenTravel.com). She is regional chair for the national Garden Writer Association’s convention in Buffalo in August, 2017 (gardenwriters.org)