Atlanta’s Top Invasive Plants
(A to Z) Expanded List
The invasive plants in this guide are listed alphabetically by common names.
This is an expanded and updated post to our very popular Resource “Top 10 Invasive Plants That Harm Our Urban Forest” and the companion Resource “How to Remove Our Top 10 Invasive Plants.” We also highly recommend the Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council (GA-EPPC) website for a complete list of Georgia’s invasive plants.
A list by common names, as well as a list by scientific names, are provided below and are linked to the plant description that includes a photo and removal information.
A to Z: Atlanta’s Top Invasive Plants That Harm Our Urban Forests
Click on a name to jump to its description or scroll.
Methods for Removal
In this guide, we include both manual removal instructions and chemical control methods for those who are comfortable using them.
- These suggestions are primarily for homeowners and communities that would like to start working in their neighborhood greenspace.
- These methods were selected to be effective while limiting soil disturbance, reducing herbicide use, and avoiding harm to other species that may be present.
- When entering natural spaces, be mindful of wearing proper protective clothing (e.g., long sleeves, long pants, sturdy shoes, etc.), taking precautions to avoid possibly irritating plants (e.g., poison ivy, plants with thorns, etc.) or insects, and avoid harming wildlife.
- If the infestation is overwhelmingly severe or these tips aren’t proving effective, we suggest you consider qualified professional services.
- We remind everyone that property owner’s permission to enter the area and for any work to be performed should be obtained in advance.
If you have any questions about this guide please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Air Potato / Chinese Yam
Air potato/Chinese yam is especially problematic in Florida, where the milder winters allow these thin, smothering vines to flourish and grow up to 8 inches per day! In recent years, the introduction of a beetle that feeds on the leaves of only the air potato has been studied with favorable results so far. New plants develop from the ‘bulbils’ that grow along the vine, and can make containment difficult as they are able to sprout at a very small stage. These ‘bulbils’ resemble potatoes or yams, which give these plants their names. Look out for our native wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), which is valuable for wildlife and an indicator of a healthy forest.
Commonly called amur or bush honeysuckle, it is native to east Asia and was intentionally introduced in the late 1800’s as an ornamental shrub and was commonly planted. It quickly escaped and became naturalized throughout the southeastern US. Don’t be fooled by the sweet smell of these white and yellow flowers! It spreads easily by seed, and forms dense understories that leaf out early and shade out native woody and herbaceous plants.
This pear species from Asia is most known for its ‘Bradford’ cultivar which was planted heavily for many decades because of its lollipop structure, abundant white flowers, and the inability to self fertilize. However, since pear species readily hybridize, the ‘Bradford’ pear escaped by crossing with other pear species and cultivars. These pears were over planted as a street tree because of their showy white flowers. Although their flowers are showy, they also smell a bit fishy. The tree has terrible structural form and is particularly susceptible to splitting in strong winds or heavy snow. It is easy to spot ‘escaped’ callery pears in the early Spring since they are the first to flower.
This fast growing vine was planted as an ornamental because of its bright red and yellow fruit adding color to a winter landscape. The vine can climb over 90 ft and spread throughout the canopy, threatening to shade out and girdle every tree it climbs on. The massive weight can make otherwise healthy trees succumb to wind or ice storms. Be sure you are removing Chinese bittersweet and not our native American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens). American bittersweet will produce fruit terminally (at the end of the vine), while the invasive Chinese bittersweet produces fruit along the entire length of the vine.
Popular in urban settings, this shade tree can tolerate some pretty harsh conditions. It has been widely planted as an alternative to the American elm, a favorite native street tree that was decimated by Dutch Elm Disease, caused by an invasive fungal pathogen. There are now cultivars of American elm that are less susceptible to the disease that can still be planted as street trees. Although Chinese elm provides winter interest via its bark, it does not nearly reach the height of our native. They generate a lot of seeds dispersed by wind that readily germinate and take over areas in full sun. To quickly tell the difference between Chinese elm and our native elms look at the leaves. Our native elms are all double serrated, while the Chinese elm has single serrated leaves. Instead, plant winged elm (Ulmus alata) or disease resistant cultivars of American elm (Ulmus americanus) for that classic vase shape.
Chinese holly has waxy, spiny, rectangular, evergreen leaves, bright red fruits, and generally tolerates a wide variety of conditions. These easy to maintain characteristics make it appealing to many landscapers and homeowners who commonly plant this species in their gardens. Unfortunately, as this trend continues, we are also seeing it increase its spread into our forests. As the tree matures, Its spiny leaves often curl resembling a flying squirrel shape. The American holly (Ilex opaca) is a wonderful alternative and has the same evergreen appeal, with bright red berries in the winter. To tell them apart, look at the leaf shape. Our native holly’s leaves form a more uniform oval shape.
Chinese Privet / Glossy Privit / Japanese Privet
Ligustrum sinense / L. lucidum / L. japonicum
Believe it or not, privet takes up more space in our forests than kudzu and can be just as harmful. This plant is commonly planted as a “privacy” hedge on private property. Birds then spread the berries all over the city. These shrubs are evergreen and can reach more than 30 feet tall full-grown, shading out anything trying to grow beneath them. In forests infested with mature privet, it is typical to see only older trees with no younger generations of trees growing. When these older trees fall, there will be nothing left but a privet monoculture.
Chinese / Japanese Wisteria
Wisteria sinensis / floribunda
These two invasive wisterias are commonly planted for their enchanting and fragrant flowers. This vine, which often escapes into our forests, grows aggressively. It covers the forest floor and wraps tightly around trees, starving them of nutrients needed to grow. If you cannot live without this plant in your garden, don’t fret! There is a native variety called American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) that provides the same grape shaped beautiful flowers without the guilt.
View this article on How to Identify Invasive versus Native Wisteria
This commonly planted ornamental vine does not produce chocolate, but was named for its flower’s fragrance which some say resembles chocolate. Although the fruit is edible, the taste is said to have a slight coconut milk flavor. Unfortunately, this semi-evergreen vine smothers the native forest groundcover and drapes over native tree saplings. Some native alternatives include pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla), trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea barbara), and crossvine (Bignonia capreolata). If you can’t part with your chocolate vine, please remove the fruits before they are spread by wildlife and be sure to contain the vine growth to your property.
English ivy is often planted as a ground cover in yards. Because it is so aggressive, it often spreads into neighboring properties and climbs trees. When growing vertically on trees or walls, it can produce berries allowing the plant to spread to other greenspaces via birds. The leaves of the vine act like a sail, catching wind on the trunk of the tree. This wind effect, combined with the weight of the vines, pulls on the tree, making them more likely to fall during a storm. When this plant spreads into our urban forests, it can pull down large trees and prevent new trees, woodland plants and wildflowers from germinating. This plant is great to keep indoors because of its effectiveness of removing pollutants from the air, improving your indoor air quality. So if you are tempted to bring some ivy into your life, plant it in a pot indoors.
Giant Timber Bamboo / Golden Bamboo
Bambusa spp. / Phyllostachys spp.
These fast growing species from the grass family are planted as natural fencing and green screens, but often to the detriment of nearby properties. Bamboo can spread vegetatively up to 20 feet per year if left unmanaged, and will create a monoculture — an area that does not support any other plant species. Our native bamboo, critical for native wildlife, is called rivercane (Arundinaria gigantea). Rivercane can be found in many nature preserves around the city as well as along driveways of older homes. Established patches, called canebrakes, have become increasingly rare due to development and displacement by the invasive bamboo varieties.
Image credit: Chuck Bargeron, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org
Heavenly bamboo (also, sacred bamboo) has remained in the favors of landscapers and home gardeners for decades and is still widely planted today. Documented for sale at nurseries as early as 1837, it is known for its interesting foliage and showy, long lasting display of bright red berries. In addition to heavenly bamboo spreading into our forests, over consumption of the fruits can lead to cyanide toxicosis in birds, resulting in hemorrhaging and a swift death. It’s best to replace this shrub with a native shrub or tree with similar leaves like Devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa) that provides nutritious food for our birds. If you would prefer to keep heavenly bamboo in your yard, consider cutting off the berries and using them for an indoor winter decor is a way of enjoying the beauty while preventing wildlife from consuming and spreading the berries.
Japanese Chaff Flower
While this herbaceous perennial is fairly new to Georgia, it has been spreading like wildfire. It has “hitchhiker seeds” that stick to pant legs and loose pups in nature preserves (another reason to keep your dogs on a leash). Because of this, you will often see this plant growing along trails. This plant breaks apart when you try to uproot it, making it very difficult to remove. It creates very dense patches up to 3 feet high, shading out any native plants below. Check yourself for seeds whenever exploring our forests! If you have a hitchhiker, be sure to dispose of it in a trash can and not on the forest floor.
Japanese Climbing Fern
Japanese climbing fern is an enormous problem in Florida and is popping up more often around Atlanta. It is extremely difficult to kill and covers both the groundlayer and the understory as it grows vertically. This plant is being spread accidentally via the installation of pine straw for landscaping because it is often found covering the ground of pine plantations. When pine straw is collected, pieces of the fern get mixed in as well as microscopic spores. To prevent the spread of this plant choose mulch instead of pine straw. Recently, this plant has been found for sale at local nurseries. If you come across this plant in stores, please let nursery staff know it’s an aggressive invasive. We do have a native climbing fern called American climbing fern (Lygodium palmatum), but it is listed on endangered or threatened species lists in several states.
The Japanese holly is a commonly planted dense, multi-branched, low growing shrub with small rounded leaves and dark black-ish fruits. This small bushy holly occupies space in forests that would be otherwise suitable for our native shrubs. It most closely resembles Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), but Yaupon holly has a more erect shape with red berries. Don’t let the scientific name of this native fool you. It is the only North American caffeine producing plant and the leaves are used to make tea. Other Georgia native holly shrubs to plant instead include winterberry (Ilex verticillata), inkberry (Ilex glabra), and possumhaw (Ilex decidua).
Japanese honeysuckle is commonly planted. Although this plant’s flowers smell good, this vine can mean big trouble for our forests. It is the 5th most commonly observed invasive plant in the country. The vine creates a dense cover on our forest floors, covers young trees, cuts their bark and prevents them from getting the sun they need to thrive. If you are interested in planting a honeysuckle vine at your house, consider the beautiful, native Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) instead.
Japanese hops is a prickly vine often found growing on stream banks around the city and will spread to occupy neighboring areas (usually with kudzu). Erosion along our streams results from a lack of plant diversity and deep roots that would help keep the bank in place. This vine blankets stream bank slopes, preventing the growth of other vegetation. Hops are fairly easy to remove, and you can hand pull the vines as long as you’re wearing gloves. To help prevent the vines re-growth, it is best to swiftly plant a native riparian species in its place to combat erosion.
Japanese Knotweed is an herbaceous plant with a hollow stem that grows up to 6 feet tall. Its dense root system and strong growth can damage concrete foundations, buildings, roads, paving, and retaining walls. It also takes over streambanks, making it difficult for water to flow down the stream efficiently. Japanese knotweed is very difficult to remove. The plant tears easily, making pulling out the roots nearly impossible. Additionally, any piece of the stem or root that rips off can travel downstream and form a new plant.
Japanese stiltgrass is an annual grass that often covers the ground near stream corridors. Unlike most grasses, it thrives in the shade. Since it is an annual, it does not have deep roots and is easy to handpull. Its seeds can survive in the soil for years before they begin to grow, making this plant even harder to control. There are studies showing that this plant can release chemicals that prevent other, more beneficial plants from growing around it. So although this plant does not create as dense of a mat as our other invasive vines and grasses, it suppresses our native plants in other ways.
More information on identifying this invasive species versus similar looking native plants is available here. A helpful video tutorial is included.
Better known as “the plant that ate the south,” kudzu was purposefully planted all over the south in the early 20th century to reduce erosion from poor farming practices. Although kudzu is no longer planted, we are still stuck with it growing along highways, in public parks, and abandoned lots. During peak growing season, it can grow up to a foot a day! With that kind of speed it outcompetes all plants in its path, including large trees by growing vertically and covering the tree canopy with its large leaves. In other countries, this plant is farmed because it has edible leaves, and the root can be used as a thickening agent for soups. Thankfully, the seeds of this plant are not much of an issue with it spreading, but rather it keeps growing along the ground and developing more roots. Well-established kudzu roots can weigh up to 400 pounds! With all that energy stored, it can be a difficult plant to remove.
Leatherleaf mahonia is another old school landscaping favorite. It was planted for its unusual foliage–thin stems adorned with scalloped, thorny leaves that radiate around the main stalks. It produces bright blue berries that are attractive to many birds who spread their seeds all around the city, especially near streams. Although birds eat the berries, this plant isn’t necessarily the best for our birds. Like almost all nonnative plants, leatherleaf mahonia does not support native specialized insects, a large portion of birds’ diets. Instead, plant a native that will provide both berries and bugs (such as caterpillars) to support our winged friends.
Also known as silk tree, the mimosa tree is planted for its bright pink pom-pom flowers and fern-like foliage. It is used in Chinese medicine and referred to as the Tree of Happiness for its use in treating depression. It readily grows along highways, parking lots, disturbed areas, and more recently along waterways. Reproducing seeds at a rapid rate, it can easily outcompete native forest species. Although not a tree, we have a native ground cover that has very similar pom-pom flowers called sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa).
Mondo Grass & Monkey Grass
Ophiopogon japonicus & Liriope muscari / spicata
Monkey grass and Mondo grass is commonly planted in yards, right of way gardens or under trees since it can grow in shade. It is planted for its evergreen appeal and purple flowers. Unfortunately, those flowers turn into berries that birds readily spread to our forested areas. Because this plant grows so well in the shade, it takes over the forest floor, creating thick mats (much like English ivy) suffocating our native ground layers. Native ferns are a great alternative and grow well in shade. Another good choice is Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.) for sunny spots!
This multi-stemmed shrub was once promoted as a “living fence” for livestock and erosion control, but it was soon recognized as disruptive to pastures and natural ecosystems. It crowds out native species with dense thickets and spreads rapidly over open fields. This viney shrub will leaf out early and retain its foliage longer than most plants in the fall, leading to robust root systems. If you are keeping this plant around because you love roses, consider planting our native Carolina rose (Rosa carolina) and Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana).
Not actually a mulberry at all, it was named for its historical use in paper and cloth making. It was also planted as a fast growing shade tree, but its shallow root system makes it especially vulnerable to toppling over during strong winds. If male and female trees are present, it spreads widely and rapidly. Once established, the tree can spread vegetatively as well, inhibiting the development of native species, especially in fields, along forest edges, or newly disturbed areas. Paper mulberry is easily identified by its furry leaves, tiger striped gray and reddish brown bark, and unique fruit. If its lobed leaves are a look that you desire, plant our native sassafras (Sassafras albidum) in its place!
Periwinkle is a creeping vine with large purple flowers that continues to be a favorite choice for home garden ground cover. Because it is so widely planted, it is now commonly found in natural areas and often where homes once stood. It can grow into dense patches along the forest floor, smothering native herbaceous plants. If you would like a showy purple ground cover for your yard, take a look at our native phloxes such as woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) and garden phlox (Phlox paniculata).
Porcelain berry was planted as an ornamental due to its flamboyant robin-egg speckled berries ranging in colors from blue to pink. Superficially similar to our native grape vine called muscadine, this invasive vine’s leaves can vary in form, even along the same vine. The distinction lies in the way the flowers and berries face–with porcelain berry’s inflorescence sticking up, and the muscadine’s drooping downward. This vine, while destructive on its own, becomes especially detrimental when found mixed with other invasive vines that persist in the same conditions, leaving native plants little room to grow and thrive.
Translated from Japanese, the tree is called ‘Princess Tree’ because it was once customary to plant when a girl was born. By the time she was ready to get married, the tree was large enough to make a dresser from the wood as a wedding present. Often found on roadsides, along parking lots, and even out of cracks in buildings, this fast growing tree thrives in urban conditions. If you were to cut this tree down, you would find that the inside of the trunk is hollow. By not having to produce as much wood, this tree is able to focus more of its energy growing taller, faster. A single tree can produce twenty million seeds that germinate easily and travel long distances by wind and water. Mature trees are often structurally unsound and rarely live more than 70 years. A native that looks similar is our beautiful Southern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides). To tell the difference, look at the fruit. The princess tree forms pecan-shaped capsules while the Southern catalpa forms a cigar-like pod.
Rose of Sharon
Is it a tree or is it a shrub? This shape-shifting understory tree was widely planted and remains popular today for its large, colorful flowers and resiliency to aggressive pruning. While there are many fruitless varieties, those that have them contain many seeds that are dispersed by wind and easily germinated, creating large dense patches. If you are in love with the look of hibiscus flowers, plant our natives: swamp rosemallow (Hibiscus grandiflorus) and scarlet rosemallow (Hibiscus coccineus).
Silverthorn / Autumn Olive
Once considered to have a whimsical form with sweet, delicate flowers, it is now often described as ugly, twisting, and unruly. Elaeagnus was widely planted along highways throughout the southeast because of its ability to thrive in even the harshest conditions. Both the evergreen (silverthorn) and deciduous (autumn olive) species are identifiable by their silver leaf underside. Unfortunately, many birds are drawn to their bright orangish red fruits, and there have been multiple accounts of increased bird mortality at Elaeagnus hedges along high-traffic areas. The fruits are edible for humans and can be quite delicious. If you are not able to remove the plant, collect the fruit for yourself to prevent wildlife from spreading the plant.
Tree of Heaven
Also called stinking sumac, this rapidly growing pest is unmistakable by its pale gray bark and pungent, offensive smell when it flowers. It was first introduced to the U.S. in the late 1700s and planted as a fast growing shade tree, but its aggressive root system can damage modern infrastructure such as sidewalk pavement, sewage lines, and foundations. It is also suspected to actively inhibit the growth of other plants around it by releasing allelopathic chemicals into the soil. Use caution when attempting to remove this plant because juvenile trees can look very similar to our native sumacs (Rhus spp.). To make sure it is a tree of heaven, scratch the bark and take a sniff. It should smell like rancid peanut butter, while our native sumacs don’t have much of a smell to them at all.
Winged Burning Bush
Winged burning bush gets its name from its bright red fall leaves and its ‘wings’ on twigs. These flat, cork-like projections are thought to be an adaptation to prevent young branches from being eaten. This shrub is commonly planted for its striking fall color and bright pink capsules that split open to reveal bright orange seeds. Like other invasive shrubs, it crowds out our natives, reducing our native biodiversity. For similar looking fruits plant our native Hearts-a-Bustin’ (Euonymus americanus). For equally brilliant fall color plant native Red/Black Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia/melanocarpa) or native highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum).
Wintercreeper is an evergreen vine commonly planted as a groundcover or shrub. Its versatility and fast growth rate make it a common pick for landscapes. Unfortunately, this vine acts similar to English ivy (Hedera helix). It smothers the forest floor and climbs up trees making them more likely to fall prematurely. Once vertical, this plant produces berries that are readily spread by birds to forested areas. Try planting native ferns, grasses, and flowers in your garden to replace invasive groundcovers.