Let’s all hate buckthorn together!

Fall has come, and it is time again to exact revenge upon the plague of buckthorn that has infested our woods, prairies and shorelines. Ah, green and thorny menace that chokes out wild columbine and jack-in-the-pulpit and festers in the bellies of our feathered friends, how I long to pull your sinewy roots from the ground and chop you into little itty-bitty pieces for mulch.

Buckthorn is an aggressive, invasive shrub that hails from Europe. In its homeland, it is just one of many plants that form a rich mosaic of woodland vegetation. Here in the U.S., however, it is at odds with our North American plants and animals. Like a viral disease, buckthorn spreads quickly through Minnesota woodlands. It takes over the understory, choking out native flowers and shrubs that provide food and habitat for birds and wildlife. It also prevents saplings from taking root and growing, making it a long term threat for oaks, maples and other hardwood trees.

Because it shades out groundcover plants, buckthorn causes water pollution as well. Rain quickly washes exposed soil under the buckthorn into nearby water bodies, and continual erosion causes lakeshores and streambanks to slump and ravines to form in bluffs along the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. Lovers of clean water and healthy woods should head this rallying cry. Let the killing of buckthorn begin!

Has the villain buckthorn laid claim to your yard yet? Signs to look for include unnaturally healthy shrubs that have remained stubbornly green, long after the other trees and plants have gone dormant in the fall, an impenetrable fortress of spiny branches blocking access to woodlands, shoreline and trails, and a dearth of prairie and woodland flowers in the spring. You may also notice suspicious purple marks splattered on paved surfaces, a sign of the buckthorn berries that sully many birds’ stomachs. 

The only cure for the pestilence wrought by buckthorn is for us to unite and eradicate it from our yards, farms and parks.  Grab your orange weed wrenches (conveniently available on loan from the Washington Conservation District) and pliers and yank the roots of the buckthorn from the earth. For larger buckthorn, and in areas where pulling is impractical, grab your saws, axes and shears, cut the enemy as low to the ground as possible, and then paint the stumps with Garlon or another herbicide to prevent it from re-growing. We are an army of the citizens, though; if you don’t want to use herbicides, then cover the cut stumps with tin cans to keep them from re-sprouting or mow them repeatedly for several growing seasons. Research from the St. Croix Watershed Research Station also suggests that you can girdle buckthorn with Garlon during the winter, which will kill it over the course of one to two years. Even better, a newly developed hypo-hatchet (see http://www.forestry-suppliers.com/ for more info) dispenses herbicide into each buckthorn plant you whack, allowing you to move quickly through a buckthorn grove, killing with abandon.

Don’t just sit idly by while buckthorn invades our favorite outdoor places and diminishes our way of life. Are you going to let yourself be beaten by a plant? With strength in numbers, and nothing else to do until the snow comes, we can rise up and take back the land!

Visit www.mnwcd.org/buckthorn to learn more about managing buckthorn on your land, including removal strategies, information about controlling buckthorn with herbicides, and a list of local buckthorn consultants that can help you get the work done.