Alternatives to Invasive Shrubs

Find out which invasive shrubs to avoid and what to replace them with.

Exotic invasive shrubs pose a threat to natural areas. The qualities that make them attractive and low maintenance also allow them to survive and spread when they jump the garden fence into the woods and fields. Once there, they outcompete native plants that are vital to the survival of wildlife.

Removing any invasive exotics already in your yard can be easier said than done. Some are still commonly sold at garden centers and have design value in the landscape. And some even offer food for birds or butterflies, so it might seem counterintuitive to eliminate them. Remember, though, that even if some wildlife benefit from these shrubs, they can destroy habitat for many other species. In the big picture, native plant communities provide the best wildlife habitat.

Luckily, there are great native alternatives to invasive exotic shrubs that can play the same role in the landscape.

Avoid this: Butterfly bush

Renowned for its ability to attract butterflies, butterfly bush has become invasive in the Pacific Northwest and much of the East.

Try this: Buttonbush, New Jersey tea, summersweet and elderberry are excellent shrub alternatives for the East; all are irresistible to butterflies. Elderberry works in the West, too, along with western spirea, California lilac, blackbrush and other ceanothus species. And unlike butterfly bush, which doesn’t support caterpillars, many of these shrubs are also caterpillar host plants.

Alternatives To Invasive ShrubsSteve and Dave Maslowski
Steve and Dave Maslowski Plant dogwood (pictured above with northern cardinal) instead of barberry.

Avoid this: Burning bush

This ubiquitous shrub is popular for its deep red fall foliage, but it’s a woodland invasive in the East, Midwest and South.

Try this: Native shrubs that provide an equally stunning scarlet display include blueberry, sweetspire and fothergilla. These vibrant alternatives also offer nectar to pollinators, berries for birds or even both.

Avoid these: Japanese barberry and pyracantha

These invasive shrubs feature bright red or orange berries. Birds eat them and spread the seeds beyond the garden, where they germinate and dominate. Barberry is invasive in the Northeast, the Great Lakes area and parts of the Northwest, while pyracantha is a problem in California, Texas and parts of the Deep South.

Try this: Many native berry-producing shrubs are better choices, including winterberry holly, elderberry, chokeberry, native viburnums, dogwoods, blueberry, bayberry, wax myrtle, Oregon grape and manzanita. Spicebush has red berries and is also unpalatable to deer, just like these two invasives.

Avoid these: Weedy shrubs

You might have invasive exotics on your property that aren’t sold in nurseries and that you didn’t deliberately plant. With these long-established invasives, it’s important to put something in their place after removal so that the invasive plant doesn’t come right back. Multiflora rose, Russian or autumn olive, Himalayan blackberry, buckthorn, and privet or bush honeysuckle should all be replaced.

Try this: Any combination of native plants that suits the landscape and offers benefits for wildlife. Carolina rose, highbush blueberry, hawthorn and witch hazel are all good alternatives.

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David Mizejewski
David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, as well as a nationally recognized media personality and speaker. He is the author of the book Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife.