Getting Rid of the Walls of Buckthorn

If you’ve been outside to a natural area of pretty much any size in Illinois, chances are you’ve seen it: walls of a shrubby plant completely blocking off trees, plants, and flowers and overrunning woodland areas. This is common buckthorn and it’s our region’s most destructive invasive plant.

Common buckthorn is not a species native to the Midwest. It was first brought to North America by European settlers to use as hedging material. While they quickly realized it spread rampantly, it was too late, and buckthorn was unleashed on the land.

Buckthorn forms its leaves early in the spring and keeps them late into the fall, creating dense layer of shade that helps it out-compete native plants. It can be so prevalent in woodlands and forests that it will completely replace existing understory plants, like native wildflowers. It exudes a chemical that harms frogs and toads, it wipes out beneficial soil life, and it leads to erosion.

Buckthorn is a major problem and it has spread to far too many gardens and yards, so it should be removed wherever possible. So let’s get started with some tips.


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Making the Right Identification

Buckthorn is easily identifiable, especially later in the fall, as its leaves stay green after most trees have lost their leaves for the season. Buckthorn’s simple leaves are elliptical in shape, about three inches long, and have veins that curve toward the tip.

Twigs often have thorny projections toward the tips, hence the common name. Cut buckthorn branches reveal the species’ yellow sapwood and orange heartwood, which is a useful way to confirm its identification.

Buckthorn’s habit varies from a small tree to 25 feet in height, to a shorter, broader shrub. It often grows in thick stands in the understory, crowding out other species and thus diminishing area diversity. It is very shade-tolerant, which also helps buckthorn out-compete native shrubs and tree saplings. Buckthorn also readily re-sprouts when cut, making it difficult to remove. Birds will the dark fruit, which contributes to its pervasiveness.

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 full of green leaves.

Photo: Gary Fewless via Wisconsin Wetlands Association

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Removing Buckthorn Properly

Take a moment to size up your population of buckthorn on your property: where is its heart 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, such as a stand of oak trees, work from there outward.

Hand-pull small plants when soil is damp. An advantage of hand-pulling is that it removes the roots, which reduces resprouting. Use a Pullerbear, Extractigator or similar tool for stems up to 2 inches. Cut larger stems and trunks with a loppers, hand
saw or, when necessary, chainsaw. You’ll want to protect your body with goggles, thick gloves, sturdy boots, etc.

Herbicide immediately and very 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 will help you keep track of which stems were treated. And if you do use herbicides, don’t let it touch any plants you want to keep.

Be sure you have a plan for disposing of the waste, too, whether that’s burning or chipping. In general, it is best to leave noxious weeds like buckthorn on-site. Even dead plants can spread seeds. If chipping or burning aren’t an option, contact yard waste facilities to see if they accept noxious weeds.

One last tip: talk to your neighbors. For one, you may want to mention why you’re cutting brush, and chances are they’ll have buckthorn on their property too. If all the neighbors are removing it from their property, everyone has a better chance of success. Plus, you can team-up on neighborhood workdays and many hands will make light work.


Planting an Alternative

It’s understandable that you may want to keep a sense a privacy around your home. Luckily, there are several native species you can plant that will provide similar aesthetic features and provide brilliant fall colors while giving a better home to birds and wildlife.

We recommend the following buckthorn alternatives:

  • Hazelnut or filbert (Corylus americana)
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzion)
  • Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
  • Nannyberry viburnum (Viburnum lentago)
  • Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Photos via Possibility Place Nursery and John Raithel

Getting the Help You Need

This might sound like a lot of work. In some cases, it certainly can be, but you’re making an important commitment to nature and the environment. To keep big jobs from overwhelming you, simply draw an imaginary “line in the sand,” and pledge to remove any buckthorn that crosses the line. Another option is waiting until winter when plants are dormant and soils are frozen. This will keep you from trampling any flowers or plant life you do want on your property.

If you’re unsure what you’re looking at, Openlands can help. Through the Conservation@Home program, you can spend a hour walking your land with one of our expert ecologists who will help identify the natural features on your property, assess tactics for controlling invasives like buckthorn, and recommend ways to implement conservation-friendly practices. Learn more about the program and sign up now for a free property consultation.

Preserving Farmland and Cherished Family Memories in Support of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge

When Elena Spiegelhoff inherited the family farm in McHenry County, she wanted to protect the farmland and natural features she had known since childhood. The farm had been in her family since 1950, first in the care of her parents, and then her brother, Eugene. But Elena knew she couldn’t care for the farm forever.

Elena speaks with fond memories of this family home in Richmond: growing up, the family horse would plunge her into the Nippersink Creek on hot summer days, her grandmother would spend their summers working in her garden and using the farm house table for baking; Elena would climb to her hillside “secret garden” hidden among the oak trees that would produce the “best tasting melons in all of [McHenry] County,”; and she would walk the land as a kid in the company of her two dogs. How do you part with a place you hold so dear?

Elena wanted to ensure her family’s farm was preserved and that it can be a place for future generations to appreciate. Her deep love and respect of the land led Elena to a partnership with The Land Conservancy of McHenry County (TLC) and Openlands. Today, we are pleased to announce that we have permanently protected the land that Elena loves.


This was a prime opportunity for Openlands to support Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Hoffmann Farm, which honors the family name, is 153 acres sitting within the greater refuge area. In May 2018 we completed the process to protect the farm: first, together with TLC, we helped Elena place a conservation easement on her property before purchasing the protected land. We are now working with a sustainable farmer to keep the land healthy and productive in its new role as a native plant nursery.

Hoffmann Farm also presented an opportunity to preserve some local history as well as high quality natural resources. Elena’s brother Eugene was an avid fan of model trains and formerly operated a small model train on the farm for local residents to enjoy. While that service is no longer running regular trips, Elena wanted to make sure her brother’s legacy wasn’t paved over as a mall or subdivision, and portions of the old model train tracks now remain on the land.

The oak-hickory woodland that served as a backdrop to so many childhood adventures has been protected and we will help that ecosystem thrive. Finally, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service structured Hackmatack around the many small waterways that comprise the Nippersink Creek watershed, and Hoffmann Farm straddles half a mile of some of the most pristine waters in the creek’s North Branch, providing substantial support to habitat and wildlife in the region.


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Hoffmann Farm is one of five sites Openlands is currently working to protect in support of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Like the farm, these projects are the result of partnerships with willing sellers or private landowners who place conservation easements on their land. As Openlands continues to protect new areas within the greater refuge area, we are interested in exploring multiple land-use strategies to protect natural resources, promote a culture of conservation, help the region thrive, and ensure working agricultural lands remain healthy and productive. Red Buffalo Nursery will now operate on Hoffmann Farm, providing native plants both for purchase and to assist with landscape restorations throughout the region.

Agricultural conservation easements, like the easement at Hoffmann Farm, can ensure that farmland remains protected. These practices lead to healthier soil, cleaner waters, and a better home for wildlife. Openlands is excited to work with small and new farmers for the benefit of local communities and our region’s sustainable agriculture.


While it took some time to protect her home, Elena Spiegelhoff stood by this vision, and we cannot thank her enough for sharing her love of the land with us. We are honored to assist landowners like Elena who share our passion for land conservation. Many thanks to our partners at the Land Conservancy of McHenry County, to Grand Victoria Foundation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service for their vital support, and to the early leadership in this project provided by Liberty Prairie Foundation and Food:Land:Opportunity, an initiative of the Kinship Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, funded by the Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust.

For more information on Openlands’ regional land conservation work or on Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, please contact land@openlands.org.

Invite Nature into Your Garden with Native Plants

Spend some time speaking to a conservationist and you’ll likely hear us talk about native plants, and while the name may be logical enough, we don’t often describe what they are, what makes them unique among other plants, or why we should plant them.

Native plants have been growing in the region for centuries, well before European settlement. They are born in our landscapes and are key to our ecosystems. These species evolved here over thousands of years in fire-adaptive soils — soils that would frequently experience wildfires — and in lands carved by glacial retreat after the last Ice Age. They also provide food and energy to the many species of birds, butterflies, and wildlife that share our home in this region.

You’ve probably heard of some native plants already, such as milkweed, coneflowers, and asters. Even among those, however, not all varieties of one particular plant are native to northeastern Illinois. For example, common milkweed and butterfly milkweed are native to the region, but other varieties such as white-stemmed or green-flowered milkweed, are not, and native plants are more than flowers and grasses, they also include trees and shrubs such as sugar maple, northern catalpa, and bur oaks.


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In ecosystem restorations, we plant native species to improve the health of habitats, but you can continue this work on your own property by including native species in your home garden or your local community garden.

Bringing native plants to your garden is an easy and excellent way to invite nature in. Native plants are hardy and often require little watering. Their deep roots aid in water purification and rainwater absorption, and some even grow best in areas where water collects or flows. Native plants are also great for any landscape of any size, and there are a wide variety of species to choose from. However, the optimal location for a native plant depends on the species.

Openlands has made it easy to plant native species this year through our Native Plant Sale. Through the Native Plant Sale, the public can purchase trees, shrubs, flowers, ferns, and other plants for their homes and properties both online and at an on-site store. We will accept online orders from Thursday, March 29 through Sunday, April 29. Orders must be picked up between May 18 and May 20 from 9am-3pm at Almond Marsh Forest Preserve, located at 32492 N. Almond Rd. in Grayslake.

Our pop-up shop will be open from May 18 to May 31 (closed Mondays and Tuesdays), 9am-3pm at Almond Marsh Forest Preserve, located at 32492 N. Almond Rd. in Grayslake, Illinois. Plant experts will be available to assist shoppers at the on-site store.

The native species for sale are not available at traditional nurseries and garden centers. The curated selection being offered is chosen specifically for the plants’ landscaping aesthetics and suitability for private properties, and they’ll look great in your garden!

Proceeds from the sale go towards Openlands and help support programs such as the restoration of the Liberty Prairie Reserve, Conservation@Home, and regional advocacy work. Openlands members receive 10% off purchases using the code mailed to them. Become an Openlands member.