Remove the Buckthorn


Look for a good privacy screen? Consider these replacements.

Learn How to Identify and Remove Buckthorn

Buckthorn is an invasive shrubby tree that destroys native habitat. Though it is illegal to sell buckthorn in Illinois, it continues to spread across the region and crowd out our native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. Buckthorn also contains a chemical that harms birds, frogs, and other beneficial wildlife.

Removing buckthorn brings sunlight back into the woods. For privacy screening, consider shrubs such as black haw viburnum, spicebush, hazelnut, or others. You can see a full list of plants in our Native Shrub and Plant Guide. These hardy natives offer songbird and butterfly habitats, pretty autumn color, and lovely flowers.

Some villages, such as Riverwoods, will cover a portion of your costs.

Your neighborhood might qualify for help through the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission WMB Grant.

For properties with over five acres of unimproved land, consider the Illinois Conservation Stewardship Program.

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

If you hire some help, the following tips and companies can be of assistance.

  1. Communicate clearly about what to remove. Make sure work zone 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 of various sizes. Mark and discuss property boundaries and areas that are off-limits for traveling across or for disposal of the 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 to 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.

Companies for consideration:

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

1. Check your identification.
Other plants can be confused with buckthorn, so we suggest you use a good resource for accurate identification, such as this one. The easiest time of year for identification is late autumn when most other trees and shrubs have lost their leaves, but buckthorn remains green.

2. Assess the enemy and make a plan.
If you’re clearing a large amount, it can be 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. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will this project be completed in one season, or is it a multi-year project?
  • Do you have any ecological treasures such as young oaks, rare wildflowers, or natural ponds that are at particular risk from buckthorn?
  • Think of how you’ll move the branches out of the area and dispose of them by burning, chipping, etc.
  • What time of year will you tackle this? If you will be cutting them down to the stump – with loppers, a chainsaw, or a hand saw – the best time is from late summer through winter until right before the spring thaw.
  • If you can’t remove all the buckthorn right away, target the ones full of berries.
  • With large populations and privacy concerns, think about where you could locate replacement plantings and prepare those areas first. Think about views from a window or deck, for instance.
  • 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.

3. 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.

4. Hand-pull small plants when the soil is damp.
Stems that are thinner than a pencil can be pulled, and this is easiest when the soil is moist. Be sure to tap the disturbed soil back into place with your foot. For somewhat thicker stems, use hand tools such as a Pullerbear or Extractigator.

5. 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.

6. Herbicide immediately and carefully after cutting.
Choose the right herbicide based on your site and the time of year. The label provides critical information about how to effectively, safely, and legally handle and use the herbicide. Read and follow all label instructions.With the right herbicide, you can cut and chemically treat buckthorn throughout fall and winter. If you’re working near wetlands, ponds, creeks, or lakes, use an aquatic-approved herbicide. If you’re working in temperatures below freezing, be sure your herbicide is labeled for those temperatures. In cases where more than a few plants are treated, add an indicator dye to the herbicide to show which cut stumps you have treated. Colored flags can also help mark cut stumps.

7. Non-chemical methods.
If you prefer not to chemically treat the buckthorn, cut the stem of the plant a few inches above the soil, then cover the stump with a can or bucket to prevent re-sprouting. Use bricks, rocks, etc. to hold these in place. Leave them for one to two years. Check plants regularly to ensure no new growth is occurring from the stumps.

8. Prepare for follow-up.
With well-established populations, expect to treat new growth for a year or more. After buckthorn is controlled, many sites benefit from new plantings. This can provide aesthetic benefits, wildlife habitat, and privacy screening. It also minimizes bare ground, which can be quickly overrun by invasive species.



Meet Our Expert Staff

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Landscaping Specialist
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Director of Lake County Programs
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Landscape Ecologist
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