Bye, Bye Buckthorn: Guest Blog by Nick Rhodehamel

Here in the upper Midwest, it’s been a long winter. The ground has been continuously under snow since December 19. That snowfall closed down the city, and to children’s delight, schools too. It was the fourth greatest snowfall on record with 19.2 inches recorded near my house. I told my own children to take note: this is an unusual storm; you won’t see one like this again anytime soon. But, as it turned out, we had three more substantial snow storms. They weren’t as big as the first one, but they brought the same, heavy wet snow that covered all the spruces and pines (and everything else) so that we looked like the Canadian Rockies.

It was a winter wonderland. I liked it. Of course not everyone did, even some in my own family, and most people are now absolutely sick to death of it. I’m ready for spring too, but with this week’s high pressure and cold air, the snow hangs on —not a crocus, not a daffodil in sight. But with your thumbnail, scratch off a little of the bark of a common buckthorn twig, and you will find bright green tissue ready to go.

Around here, buckthorn’s all over. When we first moved to our house last summer, we admired the mature landscaping. Only gradually did it dawn on us how overgrown the place was. When we looked carefully, we saw emerging from —whatever it was —here an old crabapple and there a mature hawthorn. Then everywhere we looked, we saw lilacs, dogwoods, various types of fern, and smooth hydrangea, all peering from beneath, around, and through the overgrowth. There was even a towering old tamarack that I had failed somehow to see. The “whatever it was” was buckthorn. It was then that I got interested in buckthorn eradication.

Buckthorn, a native of Eurasia and North Africa, was introduced to North America as an ornamental shrub in the early 19th century. Why it was thought a plant of merit, I can’t say for sure. It certainly takes no effort to cultivate (but why would you want to) and will flourish to a confluent hedge in no time. Birds like its fruit. The bark and fruit also were used as a purgative (though apparently results could be violent). In the early 19th century, much of medicine focused on shocking the body back to health. For that reason, buckthorn’s —let’s say —cleansing attributes may have been valued, and perhaps its specific name (cathartica) was an optimistic forecast of buckthorn’s medicinal effects. Who knows?

But the problems with buckthorn must have been apparent soon after it escaped cultivation. It aggressively invaded forests, woodlands, meadows, fields, and roadsides. And it aids the spread of a disease that was important back then —crown rust of oat. In summer, the undersides of buckthorn leaves are marked by small, orange somewhat powdery protruding pustules. These are fruiting bodies of the fungus that causes crown rust. Buckthorn is required for the fungus to complete its life cycle (and infect oats). In the early part of the last century in the upper Mississippi Valley, where oat was a major crop, concerted efforts were made to contain and eradicate buckthorn expressly to spare that crop. But buckthorn’s presence today in all but the southernmost tier of US states and farthest north Canadian provinces demonstrates how unsuccessful those efforts were.

Buckthorn spreads like mad in almost any environment it colonizes. It freely grows in full sun to deep shade. It grows rapidly, tolerating various soil types and varying moisture and drought conditions. It produces an abundance of fruit that is attractive to birds, who spread it far and wide. If a buckthorn thicket is cleared, exposing soil that had been in deep shade, the shed seeds quickly germinate and initiate a new thicket. And cut stumps readily sprout. In spring, buckthorn has a leg up on its deciduous peers by leafing out earlier; in fall, those leaves continue to photosynthesize well after most plants have senesced. There is also evidence that buckthorn changes soil carbon and nitrogen dynamics, facilitating the elimination of leaf litter and invasion by exotic European earthworms and ultimately making the soil less suitable for native plants. These changes in the soil may persist even after buckthorn has been removed.

So what to do this spring when December is still in the air and on the ground? Why continue my buckthorn eradication project. I began it last summer in a small way, cutting a few buckthorns that were obviously in the way. But it quickly ballooned to a major undertaking. My procedure is simple: plants that are small enough I pull out of the ground; otherwise, I cut them at the soil line and treat the stump with Roundup. One application of Roundup is not usually enough though, so I reapply it when the stump begins to sprout.

From an area of probably well less than half an acre, I have removed literally hundreds of buckthorns, ranging in size from small seedlings to real trees close to a foot in diameter at the soil line. The real work comes in disposing of the cut brush. I’m lucky though: I drag it down to the road by my house, make a small effort at consolidating the pile, and the city ultimately takes it away (it’s all part of my municipal services bill).

I get a certain amount of satisfaction in removing the buckthorn. It’s made a remarkable difference in opening up the property. It probably doesn’t increase the resale value —any more than remodeling a kitchen does, though. But I’m not moving anyway. I have roughly a third more to clear, and it’s easier now than in summer when it’s hot and the buckthorns have leaves. But this is a long-term project. When I’ve removed all the buckthorn, I won’t be done. For years, I anticipate that buckthorn will continue to come up from roots and seed. I’ll keep you posted.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 19th, 2013 at 3:56 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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19 Responses to “Bye, Bye Buckthorn: Guest Blog by Nick Rhodehamel”

  1. Dac Crossley said:

    Nice Springtime column. We don’t have buckthorn here on the Georgia Piedmont but we have our own English blessings. Like Privet. Of course we got nobody to blame but ourselves for Kudzu.

    • Nick said:

      Dear Dac,

      Thanks for taking the time to write in. Nice to hear from you.

  2. gael tryles said:

    Interesting! I found an unfamiliar tree on the back of a basically unused ‘back 5 acres’and I looked it up to see what this unknown,to me, tree was.It was a Buckthorn! I was pleased of my find of another tree type that I hadn’t seen before-now I find that it is invasive and hard to get rid of. Yikes!!!We have already been heavily invaded by the Autumn Olive which I have been told was introduced by the DNR. We have found it impossible to get rid of-Any suggestions?I have also seen a locust sapling coming up back there which pleased me because I like their sweet smelling white flowers -but I have noticed that they seem to take over areas once established. I haven’t pruned it back yet. Will it take over, as I suspect, or must I try to get rid of it? HELP. Thank you for the information on the Buckthorn tree~ it was very informative!

    • Nick said:

      Hi Gael,

      There are several different trees called “locust”. With sweet smelling, white flowers, you may be talking about black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). But even if not, they’re all pretty invasive. I’m familiar with black locust, and it’s quite invasive. It spreads mostly from the roots and will regrow from cut stumps. I would cut it down while young before it has a chance to produce an extensive root system. Whatever you do you’ll need to treat the stump with some sort of chemical (glyphosate or picloram). But you won’t be done because more than likely, it will resprout from the stump or the roots. Good luck.

  3. Jean Wike said:

    Hi, I’ve been getting you reports now for awhile. I totally enjoy hearing about your doings.
    I live in Florida and had no idea buckthorn were so destructive. I was born in N.C. where we had a few back in the woods behind our home. We never did anything about them though cause my Dad & I were the only ones that went into the woods to go hunting or fishing. We never gave the a second thought. I love finding out these things from you. Please don’t stop your newsletter!
    Thanks so much, Jean

    • Nick said:

      Thanks very much for reading, Jean. I don’t think Mr. Ball has any intension of giving up the blog.

  4. C. Paul Bailey said:

    Much like Pa’s Multa-flora Rose & Russian olive Thanks to the game commision

    • Nick said:

      Yep, the best of intensions and all that. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  5. ZuVuYah said:

    Oy! This sounds like the EVER pervasive scotch broom here… in the Pacific Northwest!! The counties do a lame job of removing it, not giving a second thought to the YEARS that the seeds can sit around waiting to wake up! I wish you GOOD LUCK!!

    • Nick said:

      Dear ZuVuYah,

      I have not tried to eradicate scotch broom, but I have been impressed with its teeming presence. One time driving up the Kitsap Peninsula (maybe mid May), I saw this pretty yellow-flowered plant along the side of the road. It was everywhere. I even stopped to see if I could identify it. When I got home, I figured it out. Thanks for the good wishes.

  6. ZuVuYah said:

    PS…if only they would do something when it is flowering… not after it has sent 10 million babies out~~

  7. Jon McCranie said:

    George, you remind me of my Dad and our fights with Kudzu in south Georgia. Funny thing about Kudzu was that we couldn’t keep it out the nursery where it would play the devil with stuff he wanted to sell but we couldn’t get it to grow in our pasturelands (it is a good cow feed). Good luck and may your weed angel be with you.

    • Nick said:

      Thanks for taking the time to write in, Jon. Actually, this piece was mismarked and it looks like George wrote it. George lives in Pennsylvania, though, and while buckthorn’s present there (and in Bucks County), I don’t think they have the problem with it there that we do in the upper Midwest.

  8. Jeene said:

    I have found that Tordon works better than Roundup for woody plants. I comes out purple so that you can see where you have applied. We have a similar problem with a tree called “Tree of Heaven” which it most certainly is not. It has lots of seeds and it suckers up from the root tips.

    • Nick said:

      Hi Jeene,

      I have heard that Tordon is very effective. I’ve also heard that it’s quite expensive relative to generic Roundup (glyphosate). I might check it out though. Thanks for the tip and thanks for reading.

  9. Margery Collins said:

    Greetings from the similarly chilly White Mountains of NH! To my knowledge, we do not have Buckthorn in VT and NH. I am an experienced gardener with a love for native plants particularly. We have our invasives, mind you, but not that one.
    Do you know if it is related to Sea Buckthorn? There was a soap available 30+ years ago from Sea Buckthorn that has a wonderful fragrance!

    • Nick said:

      Dear Margery,

      Taxonomically, sea buckthorn and common buckthorn are entirely different. Sea buckthorn is in the family Elaeagnaceae and the genus Hippophae, whereas common buckthorn is in the family Rhamnaceae and the genus Rhamnus (if that helps). To determine the range of common buckthorn, I used data from the USDA. Glad to hear you have no buckthorn in your area, but USDA indicates that it is present in both Vermont and New Hampshire (see Keep a watch out. Thanks for taking the time to write in.

  10. B.W. said:

    Howdy! This buckthorn sounds a lot like our privet, insomuch as it is difficult to eradicate, but I think it might be a much larger plant than our privet shrub in Mississippi.

    • Nick said:

      Hi B.W.,

      I do understand that privet is a real problem. There are nine species of privet in the Southeast and deep South, and all nine are invasive. I once paid good money for privet (Ligustrum japonicum) though. In California, we wanted to sell our house more easily, so we planted a privet hedge. Our neighbors to the rear owned and operated (we were pretty certain) a pot dispensary. They had begun to put up an arbor but had stopped in mid construction, leaving their post hole digger stuck in the earth where they had been placed it at least a year before. They also didn’t water their grass, so it was non existent. The hedge was handsome enough, grew quickly, and was effective in containing our yard and blocking the view of the neighbors’ yard.

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