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As winter approaches, trees are dropping the last of their leaves, gardens are going fallow, and shrubs are bearing winter berries. While it’s not the ideal time to plant gardens or new trees, winter is the perfect time to plan for next year’s gardening or landscaping project. Knowing which plants and trees are invasive in Arkansas puts you one step ahead. You can plan a beautiful garden project without harming Arkansas’s native plants and other species.
Invasive species are not original to the area, and they cause problems for local species. A non-native plant or tree isn’t necessarily invasive, but it can be a problem since it didn’t originate in the local environment. Many of these invasive species were imported for gardens, but their seeds were carried by the wind or animals, and they’ve now become established in the wild. Invasive species adapt to their new home quickly and spread rapidly. They have few or no natural predators, harm other species by their growth, or present a hazard to people or animals. The following are some of the most invasive plants and shrubs in the state.
Photo: Cogongrass by USDA NRCS Florida via Flickr.
Cogongrass is originally from southeast Asia. It arrived in the U.S. in 1912, packed into shipping crates from Japan. The grass seeds spread easily with the wind, and some farmers intentionally planted cogongrass as well as a potential crop for foraging. Cogongrass spreads rapidly and can form dense stands in pastures and forests, which prevent other grasses and trees from growing. It has a fluffy white head and a long green stem with a thin white line running down the blade. Wild Cogongrass hasn’t been found in Arkansas yet, but several adjacent counties in Mississippi have reported it, and it has infiltrated many other Southern states, including Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. Several forms of horticultural cogongrass are used in landscaping in Arkansas, though. These grasses are called Red Baron grass or Japanese Bloodgrass, and they should not be used in landscaping because of the increased risk of spreading seeds into the wild.
Chinese Wisteria came to the U.S. in 1916, imported for its lavender flowers and landscaping potential. It is a vine that can grow up to 40 feet and wraps around trees, fences, and anything that will support it. It will eventually kill the tree by cutting through the bark. Its vines also form dense growth on the ground that prohibits other species from growing. Chinese wisteria is still used as an ornamental plant, but its use is discouraged because of its potential to spread and damage trees.
English Ivy by Melissa McMasters via Flickr.
English Ivy may be one of the oldest imported plant species to the United States. English colonists brought it with them in the 1700s to use as a ground cover. English ivy is a bright green vine that climbs trees, walls and buildings. It loves sunlight and can eventually kill its host tree, which is deprived of essential sunlight. It also roots into a tree’s bark, making it difficult to remove without damaging the tree. The vine is also toxic to cats, dogs and horses. If ingested by people, it will cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It can also cause an itchy rash if it comes into contact with the skin. English ivy is still a popular choice for ground cover, but it should be considered carefully.
Giant Salvinia by Florida Fish & Wildlife via Flickr.
Giant Salvinia grows in patches on top of water in lakes and ponds. It is native to Brazil and Africa, but in the 1980s, it was imported to the U.S. for use as an ornamental water plant. Its invasive features stem from its ability to cover large areas of water, blocking sunlight, which reduces the oxygen level in the water and harms plant and animal species below water. Giant Salvinia has been found in two locations in Arkansas so far, in Lake Erling and Lake Columbia. The plant likely was accidentally transported by boats that had been used in other lakes where the plant already grew. Giant Salvinia is a problem in Texas and Louisiana. One way to prevent its spread is for boaters to thoroughly wash their boats after using these lakes. In 2022, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission built a cleaning station for boats at AGRED park to make it easy for boaters to prevent the spreading of Giant Salvinia.
Golden bamboo is native to China and was introduced to the U.S. in Alabama in 1882. It loves to grow in rich soil and in a mix of hardwood and evergreen forests. This type of bamboo can be invasive when it’s in the right soil. It quickly sends out runners and can overtake an area if allowed to grow uncontrolled. Bamboo is still a popular plant for gardens and landscaping, but if conditions are right, it can quickly overtake an area. Golden bamboo looks similar to a native plant in Arkansas, Giant cane, or just Cane, is native to many U.S. states, so it’s important to distinguish between the two species.
Hydrilla was introduced in the U.S. in the 1950s through the use of plants in aquariums. Originally from Southeast Asia, this water weed now grows in the lakes and ponds of many U.S. states, including Arkansas. It is known as one of the most invasive weeds in the world. Hydrilla is a long weed that intertwines into dense mats in the water. Its roots can extend 10 to 12 feet deep in the water. Hydrilla blocks sunlight into the water and depletes oxygen for native species. It can also clog pipes and drains and is a threat to dams, boaters and swimmers.
Kudzu was once celebrated as a beautiful ornamental vine, but it has become a problem for many states because of its invasive qualities. Kudzu arrived in the U.S. in 1876. It is a creeping and climbing vine with red or purple flowers. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the vine was used for erosion control. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted it, and farmers were also encouraged to plant the vine. Kudzu vines grow up to one foot a day, and their rapid spread smothers everything in its path.
Japanese honeysuckle by Eric Holmes via Flickr.
Japanese honeysuckle is a well-known vine in Arkansas. It was first introduced in the United States in the 1800s and used as ornamental ground cover in gardens. The vine grows rapidly, though, and birds also contribute to its spread when they eat the vine’s berries. The seeds are then scattered to new areas through bird droppings. Japanese honeysuckle is famous for its sweet scent and its delicate, trumpet-shaped flowers. If you’ve ever tried to control its growth or eliminate the vine altogether, then you know the plant is hardy and difficult to eradicate. It thrives along paths, fences, and roadways, and its growth chokes out other plants.
Homer Edward Price via Flickr.
Japanese climbing fern is another plant native to Asia but brought to the United States in the 1930s. This vining fern grows up to 90 feet, climbing and winding up trees. It can also grow together into thick “walls” of vine. It is also a fire hazard for forest fires, as the vine provides a path for fire to follow into treetops. This fern is sometimes still planted today, but there’s growing knowledge of the way it crowds out other plants and trees.
If you’re planning to add to your garden, landscaping, or overseeing larger plots of land, it’s helpful to know which plant species are native to Arkansas and which could be harming the growth of other plant species. To find out more about the invasive plants featured here and other invasive plants in Arkansas, visit the University of Arkansas’s Cooperative Extension website. If you’re unable to identify a plant and whether or not it’s an invasive species, you can also “Ask the Pest Crew” at the extension office.
Header photo shows kudzu in Helena, Arkansas and is courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Heritage, Parks and Tourism.
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