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Plants to Know: Invasive, Exotic and Native Species

You’ve heard these words before, but what exactly do they mean? How do you figure out if a plant is invasive, exotic or native? With a little help, learn which plants will save you a lot of time and trouble in your garden.

Invasive Plants

Invasive plants are…well, invasive. They take over. They spread like crazy. They can cause devastating ecological impacts, and boy are they hard to remove. Many invasive plants travel via human activity, in bird droppings, or are carried on the fur of animals. Their tendency to multiple at alarming rates is part of what makes them invasive.

Invasive plants crowd out native plants and disturb the delicate balance in a region's ecosystem. Invasive plants and trees are able to flourish outside of their native region. Some can even be dangerous. I know two people that were sent to the emergency room after removing a Brazilian Pepper. The Brazilian Pepper can cause allergic, burn-like reactions.

Some examples of invasive plants in the Southeast region of the country are Brazilian Pepper, Melaleuca and Air Potato. To find a list of invasive plants in your area check out your local extension office, and ask for the Master Gardeners.

Invasive Brazilian Pepper Tree
This tree is spread by birds as they eat the red berries and excrete them along their travels. This invasive species can cause serious health issues. Photo courtesy Poly Cal.

Exotic Plants

An exotic plant is a non-native plant that has been introduced into a new region, but does not cause ecological devastation or have exploding populations. However, when an exotic becomes out of control its classification may change to invasive.

Many ornamental plants are exotic. For example, in South Florida many plants from Southeast Asia do quite well in our subtropical environment, but do not become harmful or spread in an undesirable manner. These exotic plants can be the perfect splash of color you were looking for in your garden, but be conservative and lean towards native plants to benefit and support wildlife and pollinators in your area. For help designing your Florida garden see the Florida-Friendly Landscaping plant database.

Monarch Butterfly
Help pollinators, and birds by planting plants native to your region. Photo by Fotolia/Georg Lehnerer

Native Plants

Native plants are plants that have lived in a region for a prolonged period of time. There is a lot of controversy about what constitutes a native plant. Many scientists cannot agree on the base line. Some feel that a native plant should be measured by not having direct or indirect human contact. At this point that is very difficult to determine, many native cultures had both direct and indirect influence on many ecosystems. For our purposes we consider plants to be native if they were here prior to European explorations.

Native Plants
Bring your garden to life with native, and just a touch of exotic plants. Photo courtesy Florida Friendly Plants.

Some native plants can act invasive if they are introduced into a new ecosystem. In nature, plants travel at a slower rate so native species are able to adapt and change to the newcomers. As humans wander, build and introduce new plants to North America, some of those plants have found a perfect place to thrive. How they thrive determines if they are invasive or exotic.

Most extension offices have lists and pictures of invasive, exotic and native plants in your area. The extension service and the Master Gardeners are fantastic networks for providing science based information. Feel free to contact them with any garden related questions you may have specific to your area.

StephanieStephanie Montalvo is a Master Gardener, Master Naturalist and Habitat Steward, currently studying Environmental Science at SUNY Empire State College. She grew up on a small organic farm in South Jersey and loves to garden. Stephanie is also the Executive Director of the Brighter Future Foundation, a 501c3 organization that shares information and inspires people to interact with the environment in a holistic and healthy way. Visit her on the BFF blog.