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Battling Buckthorn on the Trail

There are a number of invasive plants that can be found on the Ice Age Trail. This past week I was out on the segment of Trail behind the Lodi Middle School, doing battle with what I think is one of the worst of the invasives: Buckthorn. The photo that accompanies this post shows the thorns that give this plant its name and which can leave a hiker (or volunteer) with some nasty scratches if you brush up against it.

Buckthorn was originally brought to the U.S. as an ornamental shrub for use as hedges. However, this plant proved to be extremely hardy and soon spread. Because it leafs out in early spring and holds its leaves into fall it is able to grow when most native species are dormant. Buckthorn is what is called “allelopathic,” which means it produces chemical compounds that inhibit growth of other vegetation. In addition, the leaves create dense shade which eliminates regeneraton of tree seedlings and understory species. Both of these factors contribute to soil erosion.

The female plants produce dark berries which attract attract birds, mice and red squirrels. Though the berries have little nutritional value they do have a laxative quality, which means that the seeds of the berries pass quickly through the animals, further propagating the buckthorn. (It’s important to note that the berries cause severe cramping and diarrhea in humans.) The plant has few predators that feed on its barbed branches, giving it an even greater chance to thrive.

During my recent work on the Trail I was cutting back some of the buckthorn branches that were hanging over into the Trail. Ideally, this plant should be cut and treated with herbicide in order to eliminate it. The most effective time to do this is in November as the plants are moving water and nutrients into their roots for the winter, thereby helping with absorption of the herbicide.

There is so much to enjoy in the outdoors and it seems to me that sometimes you just have to take the good  with the bad. Maybe things like buckthorn are there to help us be more aware of our surroundings (you don’t want to accidentally bump into a buckthorn bush) and to appreciate all the variety that is to be found…. Along the Ice Age Trail.

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