Getting Rid Of Buckthorn Organically

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If invasive species are considered the evil thugs of the plant world, then buckthorn is one of the worst offenders. When it first arrived from Europe in the 1800's, buckthorn was heralded as the ideal shrub plant for creating hedges. That all changed a short while later when it began to plunder its way through our natural areas. If buckthorn is bullying the plants in your yard, getting rid of it without chemicals won't be easy, but it can be done.


Why Buckthorn Is A Problem

Like all invasive species, buckthorn lacks the natural controls (e.g. insects, disease) that normally work to keep native plant populations in check. It's also one of the first plants to leaf out and one of the last to drop its leaves. As a result, it's able to out-compete nearby plants for food, water, and light, and quickly takes over surrounding areas.

Buckthorn is spread by birds that eat and scatter its berries. When you consider that every one of the plant's berries contains 3-4 seeds, each of which can remain viable in the soil for up to 6 years, it's easy to see why buckthorn has become such a widespread problem!

Identifying Buckthorn - Two Basic Types

Several species are commonly mistaken for buckthorn, so it's important to make sure you have identified it correctly before you try to remove it. The two types buckthorn that are considered invasive are Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus).


Common Buckthron (Rhamnus cathartica)

  • Leaves: dull, oval-shaped green leaves; 1-2 inches long with fine teeth; leaves have distinct veins.

  • Twigs: tipped with thorns

  • Flowers: greenish-yellow with four petals

  • Fruit: dark purple or blackish; ripen in late summer/early fall

  • Habitat: woodland edges, grazed and open areas.

  • Distribution: from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, south of Missouri and east to Virginia

Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus)

  • Leaves: leaves similar in size and shape to Common Buckthorn, except they are shiny and lack teeth

  • Twigs: tipped with thorns

  • Flowers: greenish-yellow with five petals

  • Fruit: dark purple or blackish; ripen in late summer/early fall

  • Habitat: wet prairies, marshes, meadows, sphagnum bogs, and tamarack swamps

  • Distribution: from Nova Scotia to Manitoba, south to Minnesota, Illinois, New Jersey, and Tennessee

Tips For Removal

Try killing young seedlings (4.5 cm or less) with a flame torch. Small shrubs (3/8 inch diameter or less) do not have deep roots and can be hand-pulled or removed with a hoe. Wetting down the soil beforehand or waiting until it rains will make the job easier.


Glossy buckthorn can be girdled (and eventually killed) by cutting a 3 cm strip through the bark around the entire base of the trunk. Girdling is a great option because it doesn't disrupt nearby soil, it will not cause the shrub to re-sprout, and can be done any time of the year.

Large shrubs (greater than 2 inches) should be cut as close to the ground as possible using a handsaw, and if possible, the entire stump removed. Plant the exposed soil immediately with a native tree or shrub.

If removing the stump isn't possible, repeated cutting and removal of the resulting suckers will eventually kill the shrub. This will take time so don't give up!

Shrubs that have been removed should be burned or hauled away (as waste refuse) to prevent seeds from sprouting somewhere else.

Closeup of thorn.

About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services. Contact her on the web at

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