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Rhamnus cathartica (Buckthorn)

 
Kirk Marschel
Posts: 58
Location: Minnesota, USA (Zone 4b)
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Hey there Permies,

I'm trying to understand better the role of the shrub Rhamnus cathartica, also known as Buckthorn. Here in Minnesota it's seen by the Dept. of Natural Resources as an invasive species, often going in and tearing out large swaths of buckthorn and sheet mulching the land. It definitely spreads relatively fast, but I'm unsure how to view it. I would imagine a permaculture way of dealing with it is letting the woodland area mature and it will find balance.

Can anyone give me a better idea of this plant's role and how to best work with it?

-Kirk
 
John Polk
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Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
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The Buckthorn is indeed invasive. A main cause of this is that it leaves out before most other species begin to leaf. By doing so, it out-competes the others for the vital sunlight. In the northern woods, it presents a further problem: it provides habitat for the invasive European earthworm that is damaging so many northern woods. In areas where the Buckthorn has been cleared, the invasive worm population has dropped by 50%.

Here is a "Fact Sheet" from your northern neighbors:
http://www.ontarioinvasiveplants.ca/files/unwantedlettersBuckthornFINAL3.pdf

I certainly would NOT suggest eliminating the species from your property, but its growth/spread should be monitored to assure that it does not get out of control...that would certainly attract the DNR people who believe poison is the best medicine.

In fact, the tree is very important in natural veterinary medicine. It is the active ingredient in the famous "Buckthorn Syrup", possibly the best known herbal purgative.

Buckthorn Syrup recipe:
(Can be made from the berries, or the bark. However, the bark must be properly dried and aged - at least a year, and even then, it can cause violent vomiting, especially in younger animals. Therefore, I only give the recipe using the berries.)

Simmer 5 ripe berries in 1 cup (½ pint) water for about half an hour (do not boil).
Wait for it to cool, then add 1 T honey and ¼ t ground ginger.

This yields one cup syrup, which is a single dose for a young, small animal such as goat or sheep.
One single dose should purge the animal. Try to make the animal fast for the day.
(Larger animals - cattle/horses - get double this dose)

The leaves are very high in Nitrogen, and decompose very quickly.
 
Kirk Marschel
Posts: 58
Location: Minnesota, USA (Zone 4b)
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Thanks John! You're quite a wealth of knowledge. I had no idea you could make Buckthorn Syrup, and I love that you provided the recipe. Is buckthorn less of a problem when the woodland matures? I know the local woodlot is infested with it and it has been taking out some of the undergrowth. I wonder if something like goats would eat at some of the young seedlings that are only a foot tall or so that come up every year.
 
James Flour
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Location: PNW
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Cascara buckthorn or Chittem is native to the west side of Oregon, and I didn't realize it could be invasive elsewhere. It is generally suppressed by firs and maples and oaks, but it generally does not seem to get out of hand here. It is kind of like the service berry (saskatoon), it is more of an understory or edge tree for fairly open groves.

I do know there were a lot of kids who made side money in the last great depression by stripping bark and selling it to the pharmacists here. It was supposed to be a fairly mild, but effective laxative.
 
John Polk
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Since the Buckthorn grows its leaves so early, the plants that would normally be the understory do not get a chance to grow. Buckthorn's habit can destroy all of plant life beneath it.

Goats could probably keep it from getting out of hand. However, it is a laxative, and they would probably limit it in their diet...unless they needed to purge themselves.

In England, where hedgerows are still common, Buckthorn is often scattered along the rows, as are many other plant species known to be beneficial to the livestock. Besides controlling the animal's movements, hedgerows are also considered the animal's 'medicine chest'. Instincts tell them which plants solve which problems. (If they are too domesticated to know, they will quickly learn by trial/error.) A well planted hedgerow and pasture will seldom see a sick animal.

 
Christy Olson
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I would caution against maintaining even a "monitored" population of buckthorn. The problem is that birds carry the seeds far away, perpetuating the invasiveness of the plant to places that don't have the benefit of your monitoring.

I had one in my yard and got rid of it after I found out it was considered invasive. I know sometimes there are benefits to invasive species, but my conscience is clearer now and I can put my energies into species that aren't known troublemakers.

(And by the way, it was really easy to get rid of mine. I just cut it at the base and then put a bucket over the little remaining stump. I only had one, so it was super easy, but wanted to mention the ease of removal in case there was any concern about that.)

good luck!
 
Saybian Morgan
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Location: Lower Mainland British Columbia Canada Zone 8a/ Manchester Jamaica
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Is there a reason why my ducks wouldn't turn savage on buckthorn's early growth? Then get fierce for creeping buttercup in march, and I know the birds hammer down the seeds.
 
David Hartley
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Rhamnus purshiana (cascara buckthorn, cascara, bearberry, and in the Chinook Jargon, chittem)... First Summer that I moved to Oregon, I split about a 1/2 cord(?) of the stuff one day... Spent the evening on the toilet! I nicknamed it, that day forward, "shittem".
 
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