Life After Buckthorn

The thrill is over. For one great moment (or perhaps several great moments, weeks, months or even years) you were one with your animal instincts. With ears perked and eyes constantly searching, you entered the woods in your backyard and sought out sinister invaders. A bundle of glossy green leaves and a tangle of spiky thorns against smooth gray bark caught your eye and with killer intent you attacked. A flash of orange streaked though the woods as you whipped out the weed wrench. With pliers, gloves, hacksaw and herbicide, you fought the tree and you won. Now you lie aching on the ground, covered in dirt with arms throbbing from overuse and you wonder, “Toward what goal shall I apply my life now?”

The word is spreading about the harmful impacts of the nonnative, invasive shrub buckthorn, and as a result many people in Minnesota and Wisconsin are working hard to eradicate it from their land. Those who succeed are often left with a sense of emptiness. Having dedicated so many hours to fighting this woodland invader, they now have way too much free time on their hands and they’re left wondering, “What do I do now?” The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Washington Conservation District have fielded many such inquiries and have formulated several recommendations for nature lovers and buckthorn haters.

First, I caution you with the bad news. Buckthorn is incredibly hard to eradicate and it may be several years before you can completely clear an area of your land. Cut stumps that are not fully killed by herbicide will often re-sprout and these side shoots should be cut and treated with herbicide again. Furthermore, it is not at all uncommon to remove a huge patch of mature buckthorn shrubs one year, only to find the area carpeted with buckthorn seedlings the next. Buckthorn seeds already in the soil will sprout, and will need to be removed by hand or with herbicide. Over time, fewer and fewer seedlings will sprout each year.

The good news is that if you had only a small amount of buckthorn in your yard, you may not need to do anything to bring native plants back into the area. Native woodland plants will often remain dormant for several years and then reappear once conditions become more favorable. Don’t be surprised if you find flowers like trillium and columbine growing next year or the year after in the newly opened patches where buckthorn once stood.

If you clear buckthorn from a substantial piece of land, however, it is a good idea to replant the area to prevent erosion and the invasion of other non-native species like garlic mustard. Native shrubs adapted to shady conditions are ideal for woodlands. Good choices include serviceberry, choke cherry, high-bush cranberry and several varieties of dogwood. If you enjoy a more open look for your property, consider planting native flowers to provide groundcover without obscuring your view.  Wild columbine grows up to 36” with dangling red flowers, while harebells, Jacob’s ladder, rue anemone and wild geranium stay 18-24” with delicate violet blooms. For wet, shady soil along the water’s edge, try marsh marigold, blue flag iris or jack-in-the-pulpit.

To find more native plant recommendations, visit and look for the “plant selector tool.” You can also contact me to request a brochure with pictures and information about several native plants, shrubs and trees or a list of local retailers selling native plants and seed mixes. In addition, the Washington Conservation District holds an annual tree and shrub sale every spring. Bundles of 25 bare-root trees and shrubs are sold for only $32.50. New in 2011, the WCD will also be offering a special bird-friendly tree and shrub assortment. The Bird Packet includes five each of bur oak, white oak, black cherry, white pine, nannyberry and wild plum for $50.

With the right resources and a little bit of planning, life after buckthorn can be a wonderful experience indeed. Prepare to enjoy leisurely afternoons in your backyard, watching birds or savoring the fall colors. Don’t panic if you start to feel restless. There will always be leaves to rake and gardens to weed. For now, sit back, relax and enjoy your memories of the war against buckthorn, fought and won.