Living the buckthorn and bittersweet life

Angie Hong - Washington Conservation District

A buckthorn weed wrench is one way to remove the invasive plant species called buckthorn. submitted photo

Sometimes ignorance is bliss. I have a faint recollection of the carefree joy I used to feel while hiking in the woods. “Aren’t these woods pretty?” I would think. “Look at all those pretty wildflowers along the roadside. Isn’t life grand?” 

My bliss was permanently disrupted, though, when I took my first ecology class in college and learned about invasive species. Now, it’s hard to go for a hike without silently cataloguing every plant I see along the way that doesn’t belong. 

Invasive species include plants, animals and even fungus that are introduced to ecosystems outside of their natural territories, spread and cause harm. Some well-known local examples include buckthorn, zebra mussels and Japanese beetles. 

Biologists consider invasive species to be one of the leading threats to biodiversity worldwide. According to the National Wildlife Foundation, 42 percent of threatened and endangered species are at risk due to invasive species. In the scholarly journal Nature Communications, researchers from the U.S. and U.K. warn that “one-sixth of the global land surface is highly vulnerable to invasion, including substantial areas in developing economies and biodiversity hotspots.”

Here in Minnesota, we’re seeing the impacts of invasive species in our treasured woods and lakes. One common invasive – buckthorn – has taken over thousands of acres of woodlands around the Twin Cities metro. This invasive shrub from Europe chokes out native flowers and shrubs that provide food and habitat for birds and wildlife, and prevents native tree saplings from taking root and growing. In our area, buckthorn threatens the long term survival of oaks, maples and other hardwood trees and can also contribute to erosion and water pollution. 

Oriental bittersweet is another non-native, invasive plant that has just begun to take hold in Washington County. It is a woody vine that grows by winding around trees, girdling their trunks as they grow. It is highly invasive in forests in the eastern U.S. but is only found in a few locations in Minnesota so far. 

Minnesota Department of Agriculture hopes to stop it from spreading further and has added the plant to its Prohibited Noxious Weed list, which means that landowners are required to take action to eradicate it on their properties. 

This month, Washington Conservation District is hosting two free workshops about buckthorn and oriental bittersweet. Learn from professionals on how to identify invasive plants from native plants, understand the life cycle of woody plants, and choose the best methods to control woody plants on your property. The workshops will begin with a short presentation, followed by a hike into the woods to see the plants and post-treatment results. Choose from the following dates and locations:

• Tuesday, Sep. 18, 5:30 - 7:30 p.m. at Big Marine Park Reserve

• Saturday, Sep. 22, 1 - 3 p.m. at Lake Elmo Park Reserve


Register at For questions, contact Lauren Haydon at 651-330-8220 x.24.


— Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water - - which includes Brown’s Creek, Carnelian Marine - St. Croix, Comfort Lake – Forest Lake, Middle St. Croix, Ramsey Washington-Metro, Rice Creek, South Washington and Valley Branch Watersheds, Cottage Grove, Dellwood, Forest Lake, Grant, Hugo, Lake Elmo, Newport, Oak Park Heights, Oakdale, Stillwater, St. Paul Park, West Lakeland, Willernie and Woodbury, Washington County and the Washington Conservation District. Contact her at 651-330-8220 x.35 or

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