Remove the Buckthorn

This shrubby tree is not native to the United States and harms many native species.

  • It releases a chemical toxic to frogs, toads, and salamanders – which can eat hundreds of mosquitoes a day.
  • It quickly grows into dense thickets that block the sunlight needed by young oaks, hickories, and other plants.
  • When birds eat the berries they gain very little nutrition.
  • Buckthorn even changes soil chemistry in ways that hurt soil health.

Removing buckthorn brings sunlight back into the woods. For privacy screening, consider shrubs such as blackhaw viburnum, spicebush, hazelnut, or others. These hardy natives offer songbird and butterfly habitat, pretty autumn color, and lovely flowers.

See below for how to Do It Yourself or Hire a Contractor.

Hire a Contractor

Many landscaping companies fail to properly train their crews in how to identify and remove buckthorn. If you hire some help, the following tips and companies can be of assistance. 

1. Communicate clearly about what to remove. Make sure work zones areas are marked with flagging, and young oaks and other beneficial plants are flagged for protection. Make sure the person cutting knows how to identify buckthorn at various sizes. Mark and discuss property boundaries and areas that are off-limits for travelling across or for disposal of cut brush. If additional invasives are present, a qualified contractor can identify and help with those, too.

2. Be specific about what will happen to the cut brush. Will the material be chipped and removed, burned on site, left where they drop it, or something else? 

3. Demand exceptional handling of chemicals. When arranging work for our properties, we require every cut stem and stump be treated with proper herbicides within an hour. Otherwise, it will grow back with many stems. When hiring help, we also require operators to be state-licensed and follow label requirements for everything ranging from weather conditions to clean-up. And we require the addition of a non-toxic dye so it’s easy to see that stumps have been treated.

4. Stop in early spring. Once the ground thaws, all cutting should stop until the following autumn. This protects turtles, frogs, salamanders, toads, spring flowers, nesting birds and sensitive soils. 

5. Standard details. Don’t forget things like references, payment, expected date of completion and if you want to be on site when work takes place.

6. Companies for consideration.

7. Financial help.

Do It Yourself

In addition to the above tips, the following steps will help. 

  • Check your identification.

Many desirable native shrubs can be confused with buckthorn including American plum, black chokeberry, hawthorn and nannyberry. The easiest time of year for identification is late autumn, when native shrubs have lost their leaves, but buckthorn remains green.

  • Assess the enemy and make a plan.

Take a moment to size up your population—where is the center and in which direction is it spreading? It’s usually helpful to work from the least-infested area toward the most-infested area, but if you’re protecting a high-quality area, you can also work from there outward. Think of how you’ll dispose of cuttings—burning, chipping, etc. We’ve seen buckthorn used for attractive ‘garden walls,’ trellises and fencing.

Sometimes it’s best to target the big females (the ones full of berries). To keep big jobs from overwhelming you, draw an imaginary “line in the sand,” and pledge to remove any buckthorn that crosses the line. With large populations and privacy concerns, it sometimes works well to think about where you could locate new replacement plantings (think about sight lines and views when you sit on your back deck, for instance) and prepare those areas first.

Are there precious plants or moist soils that could be damaged by trampling? If so, wait until winter when plants are dormant and soils are frozen.

  • Consider the neighborhood.

We’ve seen many people team up with neighbors. It’s a great way to connect socially and engage youngsters in neighborhood projects. When launching such a project, snacks and beverages are helpful enticements.

  • Hand-pull small plants when soil is damp.

An advantage of hand-pulling is that it removes the roots, which reduces re-sprouting. Use a Pullerbear, Extractigator or similar tool for stems up to 2 inches. On some sites, however, this method disturbs the soil too much and helps new weeds sprout. We generally limit hand-pulling to gardens and fence lines.    

  • Cut larger stems and trunks with loppers and hand saws – or chainsaws if needed.

Hand tools are preferred for safety reasons. If you’re dealing with thick trunks, however, be sure to learn about and exercise all due caution with chainsaws.

  • Herbicide immediately and carefully after cutting.

Choose the right herbicide for the setting and time of year, and follow ALL label instructions. Apply carefully to the stump with a disposable paint brush. With large infestations, adding a dye to the herbicide helps you keep track of which stems were treated. Don’t let herbicide touch desirable plants. Product examples for different conditions:

  • In areas of standing water, always use aquatic-approved formulations such as Aquamaster.
  • In drier areas, when temperatures are above freezing, herbicides that contain glyphosate can be used, such as Roundup.
  • In winter, switch to an herbicide that contains triclopyr, such as Garlon.
  • Though not readily available, Vanquish is increasing in popularity as a year-round choice.
  • Prepare for follow-up.

With well-established populations, you will probably need to treat new growth for a year or more. If the area is small, woodchips on top of layers of card-board or newspaper might do the trick. Seeding the newly cleared area with native sedges, grasses and flowers can help to keep the buckthorn at bay. New shrubs such as Blackhaw viburnum or hazelnut add privacy as well as autumn color and much-needed songbird habitat.