Dealing with invasive plants and harmful weeds
Many non-native plant species occur in Northern Ireland without causing any problems. A few plant species can however become invasive, due to a range of factors including the absence of a natural predator, or the presence of a more suitable climate or habitat type.
Threat to biodiversity
Once established an invasive plant or weed can upset the balance of the ecosystem. Invasive species are often bigger, faster-growing or more aggressive than our native species and in some cases, take over the habitat where they grow.
What you can do to help prevent the spread of invasive plants
There are several steps you can take to stop the spread of invasive plants:
- know what is growing in your garden – you can get help identifying invasive plants on the Invasive Species Ireland website
- manage invasive species where they occur on your land – the Invasive Species Ireland ‘Management toolkit' section provides a wide range of information on best practice management advice for a wide range of species
- dispose of all plant waste responsibly – take care you don’t cause the further spread of an invasive plant species - you could be breaking the law, it is illegal to plant or cause the spread of many invasive plant species
- know what you are buying - avoid buying plants or seeds known to be invasive - in particular take care when selecting aquatic plants
More information about invasive non-native plants is available on the Invasive Species Ireland website.
Identifying common invasive non-native plants
Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam are three of the most commonly occurring invasive non native plants.
Japanese knotweed was first introduced in the UK in the early 19th century as an ornamental garden plant. It spreads from site to site by the movement of fragments of its plant material or of its root (rhizome). It is difficult to control due to its extremely deep root system, which can grow up to three metres in depth.
Tiny fragments (as little as 0.7 g of its root) can produce a viable plant. The plant can grow as much as two centimetres a day, in any type of soil, no matter how poor, and can grow through hard structures in some cases such as walls and concrete.
It forms dense clumps which can be up to three metres in height. It has a hollow stem, similar to bamboo but often flecked with dark purple.
Further help on how to identify Japanese knotweed and how to treat it can be found on the Invasive Species Ireland website.
- Invasive Species Management Toolkit - Invasive Species Ireland website
- Japanese Knotwood - Northern Ireland Environment Agency website (PDF 281 KB)
- Help with PDF files
Giant hogweed was first introduced in the UK as an ornamental garden plant in the early 19th century before its invasive nature becoming known. It is very similar in appearance to our native hogweed and cow parsley but is easily distinguishable due to its sheer height which can reach three to five metres.
It can be found most commonly in areas of damp soils, such as river banks, where its spread is unrestricted. Each flower head can produce up to 50,000 seeds, which are easily dispersed by flood water enabling it to quickly take over an area it occurs in.
Its seeds can remain viable for several years, so treatment must be continued until the soil seed bank is fully exhausted and no further growth is observed.
Giant hogweed can cause skin irritation following contact. It contains a phototoxic sap which irritates skin when skin is exposed to sunlight. Symptoms are usually noticeable within 24 hours, and include blistering and swelling on the skin, which may be made worse by prolonged exposure to the sun.
If you come into contact with Giant hogweed, cover the affected area immediately to avoid exposure to the sun. Wash the area with cold water. If blistering occurs or the contact was with the eyes you should seek medical advice from a doctor.
Further help on how to identify giant hogweed and how to treat it can be found on the Invasive Species Ireland website.
Himalayan balsam was first introduced in the UK in 1839. It has pinky red stems with dark green leaves.
The plant can produce large quantities of seeds in exploding capsules that can throw seeds several metres away from the parent plant. This enables it to quickly take over the habitat it occurs in. It is commonly found in areas of damp soil such as river banks and adjacent woodlands.
Further help on how to identify Himalayan balsam and how to treat it can be found on the Invasive Species Ireland website.
Identifying harmful weeds
Seven particular plants are classified as 'injurious' (harmful) weeds. These plants are:
- common ragwort
- spear thistle
- creeping or field thistle
- curled dock
- wild oat (two species)
- broad-leaved dock
Ragwort is harmful to, and can kill, horses and livestock if eaten. All parts of the plant are poisonous.
The thistles and docks are economically harmful if allowed to spread, as they can stop pasture and crops growing properly.