What to Know About Buckthorn

The shrub's pretty green leaves are just a cover for this bully of a plant.

For years in this country, buckthorn was embraced as an ideal shrub for landscaping. It was a godsend for gardeners looking for a hedge for tight spaces or for areas where you could plant it and forget about it. Turns out, it was all that. But there was a downside to it as well.

What is Buckthorn?

Buckthorn is a non-native woody shrub/tree that grows up to 20 feet tall. Also known as Common buckthorn, European buckthorn, Hart’s thorn and European waythorn, the plant was introduced to North America in the 1800s. It may have been brought from Europe for medicinal purposes or as a landscape plant, according to researchers.

Today, buckthorn is widely considered a highly invasive species, particularly in the Midwest and parts of Canada. (There are a couple of native buckthorns in the U.S. that resemble it, only smaller and not invasive.)

How It Became Invasive

Buckthorn became popular for landscaping because it matures fast and makes an attractive hedge. Unfortunately, its aggressive growth became a curse as its seeds quickly spread into the wild.

Common buckthorn produces a large amount of berries that are eaten and then spread by birds and mice. There’s a laxative quality to the berries, so when they’re eaten the animals excrete their seeds quickly. The seeds are hardy so they can survive years in the soil, according to experts at Columbia University.

Where Does It Grow?

It’s almost easier to ask, where doesn’t it grow? Common buckthorn has proven to be highly adaptive. You’ll still see it in landscapes. Experts at Columbia say it’s invaded oak forests, savannas, prairies, and riparian woods near rivers and streams. And you’ll find it in farm fields and wetlands.

Why You Should Not Plant It

There are multiple problems with buckthorn. Friends of the Mississippi River, an organization that’s working to eliminate buckthorn, points out these major concerns:

  • It’s a poor food source for birds and mice because it lacks nutrition. So it’s taking up space in the wild without providing food for the creatures living there.
  • Its leaves are high in nitrogen, so they attract decomposers like worms. But the leaves decompose quickly, creating an uneven food cycle for the decomposers.
  • The high nitrogen content of the leaves alters soil makeup, discouraging native plants and inviting other invasives.
  • It shades out native plants, including trees, shrubs and groundcovers. Their loss can result in loss of wildlife, soil deterioration and erosion.

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