How To Remove Buckthorn: 7 Effective Methods

If you’ve discovered buckthorn on your property, you’re probably looking for how to remove buckthorn effectively. Buckthorn, an invasive shrub that can turn into a mid-sized tree, is a significant threat to natural habitats and native plant species.

In this article, we will explore proven methods to successfully get rid of buckthorn from your property. But before we look at the different removal methods you can try, let’s first understand what buckthorn is, how it spreads, and why it’s a problem.


What Is Buckthorn?

How To Remove Buckthorn
Buckthorn bush in the wind

Buckthorn, also known as Rhamnus cathartica or Rhamnus frangula, is a tall shrub that can grow up to 20 feet in height. It was originally imported from Europe in the late 1800s for use as a hedgerow species due to its durability.

However, it quickly became a problem as it started spreading uncontrollably to natural areas such as forest preserves and prairies. Buckthorn has now been classified as a noxious weed in various northern states, and importing or transplanting it is considered illegal.


Buckthorn Identification

There are two main types of buckthorn: common buckthorn and glossy buckthorn. Common buckthorn is characterized by its brown bark with elongated silvery, corky projections, and small, sharp thorns on the twigs.

Its leaves have a serrated edge and stay green until late fall. On the other hand, glossy buckthorn has shiny leaves and lacks the silvery projections on its bark. Both types of buckthorn have an extensive fiber-like root structure.


How Buckthorn Spreads

One of the main reasons buckthorn is such a problem is its ability to spread rapidly. Toward the end of summer, mature female buckthorn plants produce clusters of blackish-purple berries, each containing 4-5 seeds.

Animals are attracted to these berries, which they consume and then distribute the seeds through their droppings. However, the laxative effect of the berries inhibits nutrient absorption for birds and animals, causing them to spit out the seeds.

This leads to the rapid germination of new buckthorn seedlings and further spread of the invasive species.


The Problem with Buckthorn

Buckthorn poses several problems for natural habitats and native plant species. Unlike native plants, buckthorn doesn’t have natural controls like insects or diseases that would limit its growth.

This allows buckthorn to outcompete native plants for resources like moisture, light, and nutrients, creating a toxic environment for other non-invasive species.

As a result, natural habitats such as prairies and wetlands are endangered, and the biodiversity of plant life is significantly reduced. Additionally, wildlife that relies on natural vegetation for shelter and food is hindered by the dominance of buckthorn.


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How To Remove Buckthorn

Now that we understand the origins of buckthorn and the problems it causes, let’s look at seven effective methods you can use to remove buckthorn from your property. These methods are from manual removal to the use of specialized tools and equipment.

  1. Hand Pulling: Hand pulling is best suited for small buckthorn plants that have a diameter of around 1/2 inch. Simply grab hold of the buckthorn close to the trunk with both hands and pull hard until the root system is fully dislodged. It’s important to wear heavy-duty gloves to protect yourself from the prickly nature of buckthorn.
  2. Shovel Digging: If the buckthorn is between 1-2 inches in diameter, you can use a spade shovel to dig it out. Insert the shovel point into the ground about 2 inches away from the trunk and use your main foot to step on the shovel edge, then leverage on your body weight to dig into the soil. Once the shovel is deep enough, push down on the handle to lift the buckthorn along with the root system.
  3. Goat Grazing: Believe it or not, goats can be an effective natural solution for buckthorn removal. A herd of goats can be released to graze on the buckthorn, which will reduce the plant’s population. Goats can consume buckthorn without getting sick, and their grazing helps fertilize the ground and reduce populations of mosquitoes and wood ticks.
  4. Lopper Cutting: Loppers, also known as clippers or branch cutters, can be used to cut buckthorn stumps up to 2 inches in diameter. The bypass-style steel blade of the lopper ensures smooth cutting with low friction. Align the blade toward the bottom of the buckthorn stump and fully open the loppers to insert the branch. Then, close the loppers in one quick motion to make a clean cut.
  5. Weeding Wrench: A weeding wrench, such as Pullerbear or Root Talen, can be used to remove buckthorn with diameters up to 1 inch or 3 inches, respectively. These tools work by either pushing or pulling the buckthorn away from your body. Pullerbear is particularly useful as it can remove larger buckthorn and is easier to use, making it the preferred option.
  6. Pruning Saw: If the buckthorn is too big for loppers or a weeding wrench, a pruning saw can be used to cut through branches that have a diameter of 3-4 inches. Use a pruning saw with a curved blade design, it is believed to have the best cutting. Avoid using bow saws or hand saws, as they are not designed for cutting larger branches.
  7. Chainsaw: When buckthorn has matured to full size, the usual full size is between a diameter of 4-6 inches, a chainsaw is the only good option for removal. Chainsaws are powerful tools that can effortlessly slice through wood. However, due to how dangerous chainsaws can be, it’s good to follow all safety guidelines when using it, like wearing protective gear and avoiding loose clothing.

It’s important to note that regardless of the removal method you choose, Make sure to remove the cut stumps immediately. If left untreated, the stumps will regrow with a much higher intensity, making them harder to kill.


Treating Buckthorn Stumps: Chemicals vs. Organic

After cutting down buckthorn, it’s best to treat the stumps to prevent regrowth. There are two common methods for treating buckthorn stumps: chemical application and organic suffocation.

  1. Chemical Application: The most common approach is to apply a water-soluble herbicide, such as RoundUp, to the cut stumps. Choose a herbicide that contains at least 20% glyphosate for maximum efficiency. Apply the herbicide immediately after cutting the buckthorn to ensure the chemicals soak into the root system and prevent resprouting. You can use a paintbrush, a wick applicator, a dauber, or a sprayer to apply the herbicide. Always follow the instructions on the container label and wear protective gear to avoid contact with the herbicide.
  2. Organic Suffocation: If you prefer an organic approach, you can suffocate buckthorn stumps by covering them with black plastic bags. This method prevents sunlight and airflow from reaching the stump, effectively killing it over time. While this method is environmentally friendly, it does require patience as it can take 1-2 years for the stumps to fully die. Buckthorn Baggie is a company that specializes in providing eco-friendly solutions for buckthorn removal using this suffocation method.


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Disposing of Brush Piles

Once you’ve successfully removed buckthorn from your property, you’ll likely be left with a pile of brush. It’s good to properly dispose of the brush to prevent further spread of buckthorn. Here are three options for disposing of brush piles:

  1. Burning: If you have a small brush pile and a fire pit that complies with city guidelines, burning the brush can be an option. However, it’s crucial to obtain any necessary permits and follow safety regulations. Burning should only be done in a controlled manner, and loose clothing should be avoided to reduce the risk of accidents.
  2. Hauling to Yard Waste Site: For medium-sized brush piles, you can use a truck or trailer to haul the brush to a local yard waste site. If you don’t own a truck or trailer, consider borrowing from a neighbor or friend, or renting one from a local store. Securely tie down the brush using cinch straps to prevent it from flying off during transportation.
  3. Mulching: For larger brush piles, renting a wood chipper can be a cost-effective solution. A wood chipper allows you to chip the brush into mulch, which can then be used for your garden beds. Operating a wood chipper is straightforward, but be sure to follow all safety guidelines and start with the blunt end of the buckthorn stems for easier processing.


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In conclusion, buckthorn is an invasive species that poses a significant threat to natural habitats and native plant species. However, by following the effective methods discussed in this article, you can successfully remove buckthorn from your property.

Whether you choose to hand pull, use specialized tools, or employ organic or chemical treatments, it’s good to act promptly to prevent further spread.

Always make sure to dispose of brush piles properly to avoid any regrowth or contamination. Taking action against buckthorn will help you restore the balance of your ecosystem and promote the growth of native plants and wildlife.

Remember, the best time to treat buckthorn is late summer or fall, and it’s recommended to consult with professionals or local landscape companies for personalized advice and cost estimates based on the specific requirements of your property.

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