Buckthorn battles continue, but humans winning

Years of sustained effort are ridding Southwest of European invader

The Fulton and Linden Hills neighborhoods are teaming up to chop down, poison and pull out a common enemy: buckthorn. Though it might sound like a character in a John Wayne movie, buckthorn is more like an escapee from a Monty Python film: a shrubbery. Not just any shrubbery or small tree, mind you, but one that threatens to turn your yard, neighborhood, parks and forests into one lookalike thorny thicket.

On Saturday, Oct. 11, Linden Hills and Fulton residents can have buckthorn they’ve chopped down on their property hauled away as part of the neighborhoods’ annual Buckthorn Bust. On Saturday, Oct. 25, the fight moves to William Berry Park — the greenspace between Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun bounded by William Berry Parkway, Richfield Road, Queen Avenue South and 40th Street. Volunteers and Minneapolis Park Board employees will attack the European invader with weapons of minimal destruction: hands, weed wrenches, shears and carefully controlled dollops of herbicides.

The two Southwest neighborhoods are battling buckthorn for the third year. In 2000, they embarked on a crusade to rid their parks and homes of the invasive species, armed with small grants from Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, federal funds disbursed through the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and their own Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds.

Laxative attackMichelle Martin, Neighborhood Revitalization Program coordinator for the Fulton Neighborhood Association, said "It’s basically a partnership effort between the neighborhoods and the Park Board to remove buckthorn on park property, and to encourage buckthorn removal on private property."

Martin’s counterpart for the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council, Madalyn Cioci, said, "We’ve actually made a dent in the private stash of buckthorn, which then helps preserve the parklands."

Charlie Evenson is a Fulton resident who works as a forestry specialist for Hennepin County’s Three Rivers Park District. He said there are two kinds of buckthorn threatening Minnesota’s urban and rural areas and other plains states: glossy buckthorn, which used to be sold at plant nurseries as an ornamental hedge; and European or common buckthorn, banned from sale since the 1930s.

The European version is the more widespread and problematic of the two.

"The black berries that the plant produces are attractive to birds," Evenson said. "The birds eat the berries and then go roost someplace. And the Latin name for [common] buckthorn is rhamnus cathartica — ‘cathartica’ refers to, basically, laxative effects."

So the birds eat the berries, distributing them around the metro area so the alien trespasser can spread its dense, thorny wings, unimpaired by natural Euro-eco-enemies.

"It’s a very frustrating plant to work with because it’s so darn hardy and successful at competing with other plants," Evenson said. "If you could design a perfect plant, as far as one that you could guarantee was going to do well in an area, unfortunately buckthorn kind of fits that description.

"It just grows faster and more vigorously than the natives, and the natives get shaded out by the buckthorn and gradually die out, and you’re left with nothing but buckthorn."

Bustin’ a moveBuckthorn is tough but not invincible, Evenson said.

While some might think it futile to battle a thorny, hardy shrub, experts such as Hendrickson and Evenson say the best chance to eradicate the intruder is in urban areas. Urban plots of land are small and can be systematically cleared, eventually ridding the metro area of plants large enough to produce the berries and seeds that birds spread around.

"I always tell people to approach buckthorn control kind of like gardening," Evenson said. "You get the big ones out of the way first, and that’s the satisfying part. People can go see the results of a hard day’s work. An area that’s overrun with buckthorn can look great at the end of a removal program.

"You can get rid of the larger plants by cutting them and then treating the cut stems with a herbicide to keep the plant from sprouting back," he said, cautioning that "It will sprout back from being cut down to the ground line…. [but] instead of one stem, you’ll have 20 or 50 coming back if the stumps aren’t treated."

Shanna Hendrickson, Natural Resource Coordinator for the city’s Park and Recreation Board, said the seeds dropped by birds or plants in your yard can be viable for up to 10 years.

"People have to realize that it’s a long-term commitment," Evenson said. "It’s not just a one-day or a one-weekend event."

Martin couldn’t agree more.

"We’ve done removal efforts every year on park property," she said. "And because it grows back at such a rapid rate, we have to go back in the next year or two, sometimes more than that even, to remove what growth has come back."

Two years ago at Russell and Lake Harriet Parkway, Martin noted, "we removed everything underneath the whole undergrowth so you could actually see through the trees for the first time. It’s basically waist-high again. And so we just went through last weekend [Sept. 13] and we took weed wrenches and pulled out those sprouts."

That’s exactly the sort of follow-up folks will be doing Oct. 25 from 9:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. at Berry Park (volunteers are asked to meet at Linden Hills Boulevard and 40th Street). If you’d like to participate in those maintenance efforts, call 926-2906 or 922-3106 to get more information. (You can also call those numbers to arrange for buckthorn pickup in the Linden Hills and Fulton neighborhoods, respectively.)

Cioci says to wear "clothes that can get dirty," sturdy shoes and thick gloves (preferably leather).

So far, more than 86 acres of Minneapolis parkland has been cleared of buckthorn, Hendrickson said. Much of it is around the Chain of Lakes area, especially lakes Calhoun, Harriet and Cedar, as well as along William Berry Parkway and the Mississippi River gorge.

Hendrickson credits a steady effort by volunteers, working alongside park employees who handle the herbicides used to wipe out large growths.

"That’s why those pieces got done and got done so thoroughly," she said. "[The Linden Hills and Fulton neighborhoods] have been vigilant about it, and it’s been great support. It’s what we need because it’s what will help maintain the areas."

Cioci said that Southwest not only looks better due to buckthorn busting, but that it’s become a friendlier place to kill the plant.

"Our first go, we were clearing buckthorn at Beard’s Plaisance Park [next to Lake Harriet] and people walked by and were furious — ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘Why are you cutting down the woods?’ ‘This is so typical of the bureaucracy!’," she remembered with a laugh. "And now, when we were out last weekend, people rode by and gave us thumbs up and said ‘Thank you!’ and ‘Way to go!’ So I really feel there’s been a noticeable change in the level of education about the problem."