How to Get Rid of Buckthorn

Yank it? Topple it? Poison it? Here are your best options for shutting down this invader.

Eliminating buckthorn is all about gaining the upper hand and keeping it. This aggressive invader, which threatens the natural health of wetlands and uplands in the U.S. and Canada, is one tenacious fighter. It requires patience to bring it to its knees. Here’s how to identify it and kill it.

What Does Buckthorn Look Like?

Common buckthorn, the most widely-found variety, has glossy green leaves with noticeable leaf veins. Its trunk is gray and smooth when young, and there’s a small thorn at the end of branches. It flowers in the spring and produces berries that ripen in late summer to early fall. It’s identified more easily in the spring or fall because it tends to leaf out earlier than other plants and hangs onto them longer into the fall.

Why Is Buckthorn Hard to Get Rid Of?

One reason is its seeds. Buckthorn berries drop to the ground and the seeds they contain can sprout, creating a dense stand. Seeds also can survive for years in the soil before they sprout. And birds eat the berries and scatter the seeds widely — even miles away. This is one of the major causes of their infestation in woods, prairies and other wild areas.

Another reason: Their root system is dense so it can be hard to remove it all.

Can I Pull It Out?

The method depends on the size of the buckthorn. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommends:

For plants up to 3/8-in. diameter: You should be able to effectively pull them out by hand.

For plants greater than 3/8-in. diameter: Use a hand tool like the Root Talon ($64, plus shipping). It was created specifically to remove buckthorn and its roots.

Work when the soil is moist. Try to disturb the soil as little as possible to discourage buckthorn seeds from sprouting. You’ll also need to watch for new plants and pull them when they’re young to maintain control of the battle.

Can I Kill Buckthorn with Herbicides?

In the spring, spray the leaves of young plants with a herbicide that has at least 20 percent glysophate.

In the fall cut more established plants at the stump, according to the City of Burnsville, Minn. Then immediately treat the stump with a herbicide that has at least 20 percent glysophate.

Glysophate kills all plants and must be used properly, so follow directions carefully for safe use.

Is There a Way to Kill Buckthorn Without Chemicals?

Yes. One intriguing non-chemical method is to cut the buckthorn down to a stump six inches or shorter and place a tin can or black plastic bag over it. It can take a year or two for the stump to die, but no chemicals are used in the process. The Buckthorn Baggie was invented by a Minnesotan who was tired of losing the battle against buckthorn and didn’t want to resort to chemicals.

How Do I Dispose of Buckthorn I’ve Removed?

Because it’s a noxious weed, best to keep it on your property and let it naturally decompose. Transporting it could result in seeds accidentally being spread. But if you need to get rid of it, ask your municipality if a nearby composting location accepts noxious weeds.

Kathleen Childers
Kathleen Childers, a Minnesota-based writer, covers topics about home and life for a variety of clients.