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Buckthorn busters

By Melissa Gearman

What started out as an ornamental hedgerow material brought over from Europe in the 1800s, common or European buckthorn can now be found in just about every county in Minnesota. Buckthorn is one of the first plants to leaf out in the spring and last to lose its leaves in the fall, allowing it to do a spectacular job at outcompeting and preventing the growth of native species. Because of this it is illegal to sell or move common buckthorn.

Minnesota has so much buckthorn that dealing with it alone could probably keep Conservation Corps crews employed. For my crew and me, the majority of our field work so far has been dedicated to buckthorn management and control. Our very first week in the field was spent maintaining some public water accesses that ultimately turned into buckthorn removal. Later, we spent a week on a site near the Old Cedar Bridge where everything we cut, and much of it was not small, had to be carried up very steep hills and piled. Needless to say, this created some animosity between my crew and the buckthorn. Good, I say. Get angry at it.

While doing work out at Afton State Park we ran into some very mature plants. This gave us the very rare opportunity to have a fun time with the buckthorn. I’m a person who loves puzzles and a large mature buckthorn with seven trunks growing together and branches growing in every direction and twisting around each other is the mother of all puzzles. I tell my crew cutting buckthorn can be fun, I don’t think they believe me. For two and a half days we cut down one of these puzzle trees after another.

Our biggest buckthorn project to date has been the woods near Warner Road in St. Paul. What started out as a typical buckthorn cutting and treating project turned out to be an all out war between us, the buckthorn, the weather and the hills. During our six days on the project we experienced below freezing temperatures, snow, mud, wind, 80-degree weather and even a little rain. Needless to say that kept us on our toes and made for a more interesting project.

Dealing with buckthorn is not an easy job and can at times be quite painful. Getting slapped in the face with a thorny branch or accidentally grabbing the plant right where the biggest thorn happens to be are all part of the job. However, in spite of all the factors that we have to deal with when working on a buckthorn project my biggest takeaway is always the great progress we are making in returning our forests to a more natural and native state. Seeing the giant piles of buckthorn we removed makes it all worth the effort.