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Preventing the spread of invasive plants from your garden

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Gardening, Invasive species, Nature, Plants

Plants are vital for our health and the environment. They improve air quality, boost our mood, improve the UK’s resilience to climate change, and provide a home for wildlife.  

Many of the plants in our gardens and ponds are not native to Britain - they have been introduced from all over the world by people.  

While non-native plants can help us create beautiful ornamental displays to enjoy, if they spread beyond the garden some become invasive and harm the environment.  

Non-native plants in the wild in Great Britain  

In Britain and Ireland, non-native plants now outnumber native plants in the wild.  

Trying to remove problem plants from natural habitats, especially important nature conservation sites, is expensive and difficult. Often complete eradication is impossible, and millions of pounds are spent each year to limit their spread.  

Image of a front garden with a brown gate
Montbretia is one of a number of invasive plants that have been introduced to the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, home to almost half of our native wildflower species, many of which are rare. Image credit: Trevor Renals

The Great Britain Non-native Species Secretariat, part of Defra’s Animal & Plant Health Agency, is responsible for helping to coordinate the approach to invasive non-native species in Great Britain. 

The Great Britain Invasive Non-native Species strategy sets out a series of ambitious objectives to guide government departments, their related bodies, and key stakeholders in delivering the most effective response to preventing, eradicating and managing invasive non-native species. 

The impacts of invasive non-native plants  

Invasive non-native plants and animals are one of the top drivers of biodiversity loss and cost the economy over £2 billion a year. The impacts of invasive plants include:  

  • crowding out native plants - reducing biodiversity and affecting other species that rely on them for food or shelter 
Image of a tansy beetle on yellow plants and purple invasive Himalayan balsam
The highly endangered tansy beetle (left) was reduced to a single population when its sole food source, the native tansy plant, became rare - partly due to competition from invasive Himalayan balsam (right). Image credit: Great Britain Non-native Species Secretariat
  • spreading plant diseases such as Ramorum disease (Phytophthora ramorum and P. kernoviae) which can be carried by an invasive rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum) and are a serious threat to native species including oak, beech and larch 
  • hybridising with native species until the native species and its unique characteristics no longer exist, for example the native bluebell, an iconic woodland species is threatened by the invasive Spanish bluebell 
  • clogging waterbodies – reducing the availability of light and oxygen in the water, interfering with recreation, and increasing the flood risk 
  • harming our health, for example, giant hogweed sap can cause blistering of the skin on exposure to sunlight 

How gardeners can help: Be Plant Wise 

Around 40% of the invasive non-native species that cause problems in Great Britain are likely to have been introduced through horticulture.  

Gardeners can help to prevent further problems by following the Be Plant Wise campaign guidance:  

Know what you grow - choose the right plants for your garden, pond, aquarium and water features. To help you do this, you should: 

  • research plants before you buy them to make sure they are suitable for your needs, easy to dispose of, and won't be invasive (see this booklet, with examples of over 160 plants that can be used in the garden in place of invasive plants) 
  • take care before giving or accepting cuttings, to avoid accidentally helping invasive plants, pests or plant diseases to travel between gardens 

Stop the spread - keep your plants in your garden. Don't plant them or allow them to grow in the wild. Even native plants can cause a problem if they are planted in the wrong place. You should:  

  • remove seed heads and pods from invasive plants regularly to stop them spreading on the wind  
  • keep plants you are unfamiliar with to areas you can keep an eye on them, to make sure they don’t ‘jump the fence’ and spread into the wild 
  • pull out any invasive runners and seedlings that start to spread further 

Compost with care - make sure nothing you remove from your garden or pond gets into the wild, you could be breaking the law if it does. 

Most plants can be composted to boost your soil or put in your garden waste bin (but remember to check first what your local council will accept). 

  • Be aware that some plants such as Japanese knotweed have extra controls around their disposal. 

Find out more about plants that can’t be composted at home and how to dispose of them. 

Plants to use in place of invasive species 

You can find over 160 plants to use in place of invasive species in this booklet developed by the GB Non-Native Species Secretariat and Coventry University. It includes plants for wildlife, trees, pond plants, climbers, architectural species, ground cover, and more. 

Below are a few examples:  

White laceflower (Orlaya grandiflora) 

A long-flowering branching annual, 45 to 75cm tall. It has fern-like leaves and white lacy flowers, hence its name. White laceflower is attractive to insects and provides shelter for wildlife.  

Image of white lace flower

Common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) 

A UK native species that forms a neat rosette of hairy leaves in its first year, and graceful spikes of tubular rosy, purple flowers in its second year. It can reach up to 2m tall. Common foxglove is highly attractive to pollinators and provides shelter for wildlife.  

Image of purple foxglove
Image credit: Mark Waugh - Royal Horticultural Society

Wintersweet (Chimomanthus praecox) 

A deciduous shrub that can grow up to 4 m tall, with long glossy leaves. Delicate fragrant greenish-yellow flowers grow on the bare twigs in winter. Wintersweet provides shelter for wildlife and food for birds. 

Image of yellow flowers

Water moss (Fontinalis antipyretica)  

An attractive, evergreen slow-growing moss with pretty leaves that can help hide aquatic pumps in ponds. Useful for improving water quality, much liked by aquatic wildlife, and provides an excellent site for spawning fish. Thrives in sun and shade and prefers moving water and cooler conditions.  

image of water moss
Image credit: HermannSchachner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Reporting invasive plants  

You can help prevent future invasions by reporting problem garden plants to the Plant Alert citizen science project. Your data will help scientists identify which species are likely to become a problem in the wild in the future. 

If you think you’ve spotted an invasive plant in the wild, you can report it online via  iRecord. 

For more information on non-native species, visit the NNSS website. 

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