invasive english ivy vines climbing up a tree

Invasive English ivy vines. Photo: Randy Cyr, Greentree, 

Updated: July 3, 2024

Why should invasive plants be a concern? Invasive species are non-native organisms that cause harm to the environment, economy, or human health with damages costing the United States approximately $120 billion every year (Simberloff, 2013). Learn what you can do to reduce invasive plants in your environment. 

Invasive plants cause ecosystem-level changes

Invasive plants displace native plants, reducing both the amount of native plant cover and the number of native species present in an ecosystem. This decline reverberates up the food web, causing, for example, losses in insect and songbird diversity. This type of damage can usually be reversed by removing the invasive plants and allowing natives to re-establish on their own, or if the seed bank is depleted, by planting nursery-grown natives. However, some invasive plant species alter the very structure or function of the ecosystems they invade, so that those ecosystems no longer provide growing conditions suitable to their original flora. To restore these areas, it is usually necessary to address the ecosystem-level changes that have occurred before re-introducing native vegetation. 

Destruction of the physical structure

Invasive vines provide an extreme example of the destruction of the physical structure of an ecosystem.  
KudzuporcelainberrywisteriaJapanese honeysuckleEnglish ivy, and Oriental bittersweet are invasive vines that, given enough time, will kill trees. If intervention is early enough, such a forest can be restored by simply killing the vines. Once the canopy layer is destroyed, however, removal of the vines yields a site that is too sunny for forest plants. At that point, restoration requires the establishment of a native meadow containing early successional trees, and a long-term monitoring and maintenance program. 

Change of fire frequency

Overgrown cheatgrass
Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum)
Chris Evans, University of Illinois,

Fire frequency is another important ecosystem characteristic. Cheatgrass is a non-native annual species that is adapted to very frequent fires, more frequent than any of our native plant communities. It dries out in late spring/early summer. This creates highly flammable material at a time of year when it would not be found in native ecosystems. Cheatgrass-invaded habitat is like dry tinder waiting for a spark. When fire does occur, it favors even more cheatgrass invasion. The increased fire frequency in the Western United States is partly due to cheatgrass. Cheatgrass also occurs in Maryland, where it invades native meadows, degrading valuable plant, pollinator, and songbird habitats. Thanks to our more humid climate, however, it does not cause large-scale fires and loss of human life. Controlled burning is a technique that is frequently and successfully used to restore native meadows that have been invaded by invasive plants, however, this technique would be a poor choice if cheatgrass were present.

Hijacking natural succession

native stenanthium plant
Eastern featherbells, shown above, are a state-endangered species and a member of the trillium family. The meadow habitat it requires is being lost to invasives. The oval leaves at the top of the photograph are Callery pear, the oval leaves at the bottom of the photograph are Japanese honeysuckle.

The successional stage is another important ecosystem characteristic. In our region, when a forest is disturbed by a storm or fire, the opening becomes a meadow, then shrubland, and finally a forest again. This process, called natural succession, normally takes about 20 years. While the meadow gap is open, it provides much-needed meadow habitat to plant and animal species that cannot live in the forest. The invasive tree Callery (a.k.a. Bradford) pear cuts the meadow/shrub phase down to less than 5 years, depriving our region of meadow habitat. We do not yet know how the interruption of natural succession will affect native forests of the future.

Changing soil chemistry

Invasive plant species excel at using nutrient-rich soils to support rapid and abundant growth. Many invasive plant species alter soil chemistry in a way that gives future generations of invasive plants a competitive advantage. Common reed, for example, has roots that go deeper than other marsh roots, collecting nutrients other plants can't reach. Each fall the decaying stems and leaves release those nutrients to the soil, creating the perfect medium for growing more common reed. Johnsongrass, listed as a noxious weed by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, also does this. Japanese stiltgrass and barberry take it a step further, changing the pH of the soil, too. The more amenable, nearly neutral (6.5 - 7.5) soil pH favors more barberry growth.

Barberry's altered ecosystem has changed the animal community as well. Changes in soil chemistry are accompanied by higher densities of non-native, invasive earthworms. The invasive worms rapidly break down forest floor leaf litter, causing higher erosion rates and more sediment in local streams. Barberry also changes the microclimate, creating higher humidity which is ideal for blacklegged ticks (a.k.a. deer ticks), the hosts of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease (Ward and Williams 2012).

Manage Japanese Barberry to Keep Tick Levels Low, Reduce Lyme Risk | Entomology Today

Altering hydrology

Hydrilla is an aquatic plant that alters ecosystem structure by establishing dense surface mats that shade out the native vegetation below. The mats are so dense that they impede water flow, resulting in zones of low oxygen and accompanying fish kills. Surface areas of stagnant water provide ideal habitat for mosquito larvae. Hydrilla hosts a bacteria that poisons aquatic birds that consume it. This poison can move up the food chain, as documented when some bald eagles in Georgia ate poisoned water birds and died (Simberloff, 2013).

closeup of Hydrilla
Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata)
Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut,

What can I do to reduce invasive plants?

  1. Don’t introduce invasive plants
  • Don’t plant them. Learn what plants to avoid buying and planting in your yard and garden
  • Don’t share them with others and be careful what you bring home from plant sharing events.
  • Don’t accidentally transport them. Remove seeds from muddy shoes, burrs stuck on clothes. Avoid mixing their root pieces or seeds in soil with other plants.
  • Avoid disturbing soils unnecessarily; invasives are quick to colonize.  Quickly replant or cover vacant soils.

    2. Encourage native plants

  • Increase use of natives in home landscapes to order to increases the native seed and gene pool.
  • Set aside some untouched natural areas to preserve native genotypes.
  • Support deer control where deer overpopulation is decimating native plants.
  • Replace invasive plants with a native plant or, at least, a non-invasive plant.

   3. Educate yourself and others

  • Encourage local nurseries to stock native plants, particularly local genotypes, and buy them.
  • Bring nurseries’ attention to invasive stock and invasive weeds hitchhiking in on stock, for example, invasive weeds in a container.
  • Share the news about invasive plants with friends, neighbors, and family.

   4. Remove invasive plants

  • Familiarize yourself with invasive species in local parks and natural areas.
  • Report sightings of invasive plants in parks to the managing agency.
  • Support community efforts to clear invasive plants and restore native plants. Look into "Weed Warrior" volunteer projects typically organized by your county's Parks and Rec Department. 


Kourtev, P.S., W.Z. Huang and J.G. Ehrenfeld. 1999. Differences in earthworm densities and nitrogen dynamics in soils under exotic and native plant species. Biological Invasions 1:237–245

Maryland Invasive Species Council.

McGrath, Deborah and Meagan Binkley. 2009. Microstegium vimineum invasion changes soil chemistry and microarthropod communities in Cumberland Plateau forests. Southeastern Naturalist, 8(1) 141-156

National Public Radio. Sea of sagebrush disappears for fire-prone cheatgrass.

Rout, Melanie, et al. 2013. Bacterial endophytes enhance competition by invasive plants. American Journal of Botany 100(9): 1726–1737. 2013.

Simberloff, Daniel. 2013. Invasive species: What everyone needs to know. Oxford University Press.

Ward, Jeffrey and Scott Williams. 2011. Controlling an invasive shrub, Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii DC), using directed heating with propane torches. Natural Areas Journal 31:2 156-162.

By Dr. Sara Tangren, former Sr. Agent Associate, University of Maryland Extension, Home & Garden Information Center, May 2019.

Still have a question? Contact us at Ask Extension.