Common buckthorn, or Rhamnus cathartica for the more academically inclined, is an invasive species introduced to North America in the 1880s as an ornamental plant from Europe. Since then, it has found wild success and is especially prevalent in the Upper Midwest and Northeast. Buckthorn has many characteristics that provide it with an advantage over native species: it has a high growth rate and few natural predators (such as insects or deer), it is extremely resilient, and it keeps its leaves later than most other plants. What does this mean for native plant and animal populations? For starters, buckthorn shades out and outcompetes native plants, while leaching nutrients from the soil, leading to erosion. Also, it isn’t a nutritious food source for animals, and its berries are a laxative (to help spread its seeds) that can harm birds. In this way, buckthorn, like other invasives, threatens to outcompete indigenous species and disrupts ecosystems.
I worked with Dawn Tanner at VLWAMO this past fall at the 4th and Otter restoration site. Dawn had us mostly work on buckthorn removal--a straightforward, if not entirely enjoyable, experience. The smaller shrubs are reminiscent of tree branches, ropey and tough, while larger trees can reach up to 40 feet tall. These require a handsaw to take down and chemical treatment to prevent regrowth. I gravitated towards hand-pulling the smaller stems, the lesser of two evils in my book (I barely trust myself with a kitchen knife, so a handsaw was out of the question). It was a struggle at times; I often found myself wrestling with both hands to uproot an especially stubborn shrub, only to have it randomly spring free and fling dirt everywhere. Despite my struggles, there was something strangely satisfying about the removal process that I found myself looking forward to each week.
In fact, strangely satisfying is how I would describe much of my time working with Dawn. Sure, there was the simple fact that it forced me to get outside during a lockdown, but just being forced to get out of bed and do something proved to be invaluable. I’ve often been in a sort of stasis this year, lacking both the internal resources and external structure to break out of the various funks I’ve found myself in. Restoring a habitat wasn’t fun, exactly, but it was fulfilling in a way that fun things often aren’t. I was able to get outside, lose myself in my work, and make visible progress towards a worthwhile goal. It was straightforward and gratifying in a year that has been anything but and, for that, I am glad I participated.
University of Minnesota class of 2022