Cutting invasive buckthorn can be a terrific land stewardship project for the winter or early spring. With leaves off the trees and bushes, buckthorn is easier to spot, chop down, and haul from the woods.
As anyone who has ever battled the tree knows, however, simply chopping buckthorn down isn’t enough to kill it. Cutting by itself, in fact, often makes matters worse. That’s because buckthorn stems readily resprout from cut stumps. So not only does the invasive plant remain a problem, but the new stems can grow into an impenetrable thicket if left unchecked.
To keep this from happening, plants either must be uprooted completely (very hard work) or the stumps must be treated with herbicide. And chemical treatment is generally most effective in late summer and fall.
Now there’s another option. After years of cutting buckthorn every spring only to have it bounce right back, a father and son team, John and Matt Hamilton, began devising a method to kill buckthorn without chemicals.
Known as the Buckthorn Baggie, the invention has been known in the pair’s home state of Minnesota for a few years now. But it got some new attention this past fall in Wisconsin, where Matt is now an engineering major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
How the Buckthorn Baggie works
The Buckthorn Baggie is a proprietary bag made of heavy, black plastic, which gets fastened over a cut buckthorn stump with a zip tie. The black bag deprives the stump of light, preventing the nasty stump resprouts that normally plague landowners.
The bags should be kept in place for one year. To keep curious onlookers from removing them in the meantime, every tenth bag comes with a label stating “Do Not Remove” and listing the Buckthorn Baggie website.
When the year is up, a bag that’s removed from one stump can be tied onto another, and then reused again for as long as the bag holds up. According to the Buckthorn Baggie website (www.buckthornbaggie.com), the life of a bag depends on how much sun it receives, with those in full sun lasting for two years.
The bags can be used at any time of year on buckthorn, as well as to combat other invasive plants that don’t resprout from root suckers. Besides eliminating the need for herbicides, the baggies also avoid the soil disturbance that occurs when buckthorn trees are uprooted.
Disturbed soil tends to favor not only buckthorn, but also other troublesome invasive species like garlic mustard. And pulling buckthorn out by the roots can promote erosion, especially on hillsides.
At the same time, the Buckthorn Baggie system may not be suited to battling buckthorn on a large scale; it likely works best on small infestations with relatively few stems. Still, it’s another great tool to have in the toolkit — especially for landowners who want to get some work in during the long winter months.