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Life After Buckthorn


You’ve cleared out the buckthorn from the woods around your house.  Now you can finally see the forest floor and look up into the tree tops, and it’s beautiful!  Congratulations.  The next steps can be a whole lot more fun.

If you want to keep the buckthorn from coming back, and enjoy the full beauty of your woods, plan to establish and protect the native plants that would have been in your woods before the buckthorn. 

What to look for:

The first spring after you’ve cut down the buckthorn, look around the area where the buckthorn had been.  Pull, or carefully spray with herbicide, any buckthorn seedlings that emerge.  These seeds can survive in the soil for 5 or more years, so keep an eye out for them in future years.  Then, look for small native plants that may show up 1-2 years after the buckthorn is removed (these small natives are why you want to be very careful using herbicide sprays to kill the buckthorn).  Here are plants others in Newport have seen on their property:

  • Wild geranium (light to medium purple flowers, lobed leaves)
  • Jack-in-the-Pulpit (flower is a 2-3” club-like structure under a hood, 3-part leaves)
  • Canada anemone (white flowers, leaves resemble wild geranium)
  • Large-flowered bellwort (hanging yellow flowers, lily-like leaves)
  • False Solomon’s Seal (lily-like leaves arranged up the stem, plume of small white flowers)
  • Large-leaved aster (large, heart-shaped leaves at the base, thin violet petals around yellow center)
  • Blood root (small plant, flowers very early, white flowers, scalloped leaves)
  • Wild ginger (grows in colonies, pair of heart-shaped leaves with single flower hanging down between them; not related to ginger used in cooking)
  • Lady fern (can grow to 3 feet high, typical doubly-compound fern leaf)
  • Bracken fern (3 broad triangular leaves at the top of a single stem, held horizontally)

Jack Bellwort Jack
Jack-in-the-pulpit Large-flowered bellwort Wild geranium

A great place to identify wildflowers that you see is https://www.minnesotawildflowers.info/

You might also see small tree seedlings, such as oak, black cherry, or chokecherry seedlings.  Oak seedlings are often the easiest to spot because of their familiar leaf shape.

What to plant:

Besides shading out other plants, buckthorn also produces chemicals that inhibit the growth of nearby plants. Therefore, it is likely that only a few native plants still grow in the places you’ve now cleared.  If you want to keep buckthorn from re-invading, increase the number of native plants by planting more, especially trees and shrubs.  The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has a list of shrubs that are good replacements for buckthorn: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/terrestrialplants/woody/buckthorn/yard.html

Other shrubs and trees to consider:

  • Hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana, also called ironwood) – a small, shade tolerant, understory tree.  It grows to a height of about 25-45 ft.
  • Mountain maple (Acer spicatum) –tall shrub or small tree, grows in sun or part shade to a height of 10-15 ft; likes cooler north or east facing slopes.
  • Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) - tall shrub or small tree, height 6-20 ft; grows in part shade to shade.
  • Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) – tree that grows to height of 40-60 ft; grows in sun to part shade; birds like the fruit.
  • Black cherry (Prunus serotina) – tree that grows in part shade or shade to height of 50-100 ft; can remain as a short understory tree in shade conditions; birds like the fruit.
  • Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) – grows to 35-70 ft in height, likes sun or part sun; easier to transplant than some oaks; valuable for wildlife.
  • White or bur oak (Quercus alba, Q. macrocarpa) – large, slow-growing trees with long life expectancy, can grow to height of 100 ft; very valuable for wildlife.
  • Basswood (Tilia Americana, also known as linden) – large tree, can grow to height of 80 ft with spread to 70 ft; medium growth rate with medium life expectancy.

If you’ve removed buckthorn from a hillside, it’s an especially good idea to plant native grasses and sedges whose roots help stabilize the soil.

  • Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica) - clump forming, grows in sun or shade to a height of about 8 inches; doesn’t grow well from seed but available from nurseries as plugs.
  • Bottlebrush grass (Elymus hysterix) – grows in part shade and full shade; it has a characteristic spiky seed head that looks a bit like a bottle brush. Can be grown from seed.

Local nurseries also can suggest native trees and shrubs for your property.  Next, plan to protect these plants.
How to protect (out-smarting the critters)

Whether you find an oak seedling growing on your property, or plant one, think about protecting it from being eaten.  Many native plants are eaten by deer, rabbits and other woodland animals. (Deer consider oak seedlings a particular delicacy.) In addition, deer rubbing their antlers on small trees can disrupt the bark and may kill the tree.

In a well-balanced woodland, the number of deer and other herbivores are kept in check by predators such as wolves, coyotes, and foxes.  However, in urban areas lacking these predators, deer and rabbits multiply and may eat all of the available plants, leaving none to produce seeds for future generations.

There are different ways to protect plants from animal damage.  One is to use a spray that discourages grazers.  Most nurseries and greenhouses carry a variety of such sprays, and you can find home-made recipes on the web using ingredients such as hot pepper or garlic.  However, re-apply these sprays frequently throughout the plant’s growing season since most wash off the leaves each time it rains.

An option that is especially good for trees and shrubs is fencing.  You might choose to fence in the entire area – use a sturdy 6-foot wire fence attached to poles or posts firmly grounded in the soil. You can also fence individual plants.  For trees and large shrubs, use a circle of 6-foot fencing with a diameter of 4-5 ft.  During the winter months, rabbits and mice chew the bark of small trees and shrubs. So, as an additional precaution against rabbits and mice, include a smaller circle (about three times the diameter of the base of the tree) of 12-inch-high hardware cloth around the base of the tree. Or use a piece of plastic tubing around the tree base.  Whether using hardware cloth or plastic tubing, push the bottom of the circle down into the ground to secure it.  Be sure to remove this protection as the tree grows and the base enlarges and touches the hardware cloth/plastic tubing.  

tree Treeincage
Plastic tubing to protect the base Protective cage around a hop hornbeam tree

Finally, there are some plants that animals just don’t like to eat.  Thorny plants, such as the native gooseberry (birds love their fruit!) discourage grazing, as do plants with strong tastes, such as nodding or prairie onion, bee balm, or anise hyssop. 

Click here for more information on eliminating buckthorn and re-establishing your woods.

The City would like to thank Susan Lindoo for drafting this page.