, Volume 141, Issue 1, pp 24–39 | Cite as

What makes a weed a weed: life history traits of native and exotic plants in the USA

Population Ecology


I compared ten life history traits (vegetative reproduction, breeding system, compatibility, pollination system, shade tolerance, habitat, life span, life form, morphology, and toxicity) from two existing databases for the 19,960 plant species that occur in the USA. I used two-way tests of independence to determine if there were significant life history traits that distinguish weeds from non-weeds, exotic weeds from native weeds, and invasive exotic weeds from non-invasive exotic weeds. Life span was the most significant life history trait for weeds in general; weeds were more likely to be annuals and biennials and less likely to perennials than non-weeds. In addition, vegetative reproduction, breeding system, compatibility, shade tolerance, and life form were related to life span. Annual and biennial weeds (whether native, exotic, or exotic invasives) were more likely to be wetland adapted, armed, and toxic than annual or biennial non-weeds. Perennial weeds (whether native, exotic, or exotic invasives) were less likely to be forbs or subshrubs, and more likely to be wetland adapted, toxic, shade intolerant, grasses, vines and trees than perennial non-weeds. Exotic annual and perennial weeds were less likely to be wetland species than native weeds, but more likely to be wetland species than non-weeds. Invasive exotic weeds, in contrast, were less likely to be forbs and more likely to be perennial, monoecious, self-incompatible, and trees and than non-invasive exotics.


Life span Compatibility Toxicity Vegetative reproduction Invasive 



Thanks to Elaine K. Sutherland, Jane Kapler Smith, Jeanne Chambers, and an anonymous reviewer for comments on the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Fire Sciences LaboratoryRocky Mountain Research StationMissoulaUSA

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