'Tis the season... to remove buckthorn?

by Alex Roth

While it may seem odd, the best times for buckthorn removal may not correlate with the best time to be outdoors (hardcore winter fans' preferences notwithstanding).

If you're part of a professional habitat restoration crew working in a large area, winter's a great time to bring out a forestry mower. Once native plants have gone dormant and the ground has frozen, you can mow down and mulch buckthorn stands with less rutting or risk of unintended damage.

In city parks and our own backyards, late-fall or early winter buckthorn removal has an additional significant benefit:  it's simply easier to spot! 

Seeing the problem

Winter is a great time to cut and remove buckthorn for many reasons, but one of the simplest is that buckthorn retains its leaves longer than most native plants. 

Buckthorn is still green in mid-November and December.

Buckthorn is known for its distinctive timing or phenology. Unfortunately, its unique leaf-out and leaf-drop times allow this harmful, invasive shrub to extend its growing season beyond most of our native shrub and tree species'. But this trait helps us get a leg up on buckthorn removal in fall and winter.

With its still-greenish or greenish-brown leaves, buckthorn stands out against an otherwise gray and brown background.

Provided the snow isn't too deep, winter is a fine time for homeowners and restoration professionals alike to remove buckthorn using a cut-and-paint method. If the tree is a tiny sapling or fully manual removal is preferred, it's also helpful to tie a ribbon around or otherwise mark the invasive buckthorn for spring removal.

For our restoration crews, winter helps make more removal efforts more efficient. Rather than scouring a mostly-green woodland for buckthorn that's blending in, crews employed by FMR are better able to identify buckthorn and not mistake any native look-alikes (chokecherry, for example, which is also a great buckthorn replacement). They're also better able to quickly find scattered individual buckthorn shrubs that might be at the forefront of invasion or have been missed in previous removal efforts.

buckthorn in wnter

Female buckthorn branches also bear berries deep into December. The fruit provides little nutritional sustenance (they're basically balls of sugar) but helps the invasive plant spread and further degrade potential habitat.  (Photo/video still from University of Minnesota Extension Service)

Buckthorn busting

So if you've been waiting for the perfect time to remove that pesky buckthorn in your yard or on your land, this might just be it. 

For a refresher on why we remove buckthorn and some useful how-tos, check out our overview of buckthorn and its removal.

If you'd like to restore local habitat and perhaps practice buckthorn removal in the process, let us know! Email FMR Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator Sophie Downey at volunteer@fmr.org.

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