An Organic Approach to Invasive Exotic Forest Plants

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Autumn is a good time to identify and treat, organically.

Autumn is a glorious time to be in the forest, savoring the palette of changing colors. It’s also a great time to get to a sense of the extent of invasive exotic plants growing in the understory. Many invasive plants, like buckthorn (left), Eurasian honeysuckle, and barberry keep their leaves much later into the autumn season that native forest plants. Take a close look as you walk in your woods. Where do you find them growing? How widespread are they? If you’re not sure what they look like, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department has a good overview with photos and descriptions on their website.

Common buckthorn

Let’s say you find glossy buckthorn in your forest. You might notice that it’s growing near a forest access road or at the edge of a field, or in an area that was logged a while back. Disturbed soils give invasive exotics a leg up. That’s one of the many reasons Vermont Family Forests recommends organic forest practices that minimize soil disturbance. 

Invasive plants like buckthorn earn their invasive title by virtue of their ability to spread rapidly in their adopted home and, in doing so, crowd out or inhibit the growth of native plants. If you do see them, and the plants are young, you can likely wiggle them loose from the ground with a steady pull. Remove any fruits growing on them, and hang them in crotch of neighboring tree so that they can’t re-root.

VFF’s David Brynn uproots a buckthorn sapling with an Extractigator.

If the plants are too big to pull on your own, a hand tool designed specifically to give extra pulling leverage can help you uproot plants up to a few inches in diameter, with minimal soil disturbance. VFF uses an Extractigator (above). Let us know if you’d like to try it out.

For larger diameter buckthorns, we’ve had good success cutting with a chainsaw, then covering the stump with a heavy dutyblack plastic bag secured with a zip tie (Buckthorn Baggie). After the stump dies in a year or two, you can reuse the bag on another stump. As far as the cut tree goes, make sure to remove any fruits. Buckthorn wood makes good small-diameter firewood, or you can leave it in the forest to replenish the soil. Or try your hand at carving it–what a beautiful grain!

When working in your woods, keep buckthorn, barberry, and honeysuckle seeds in mind, and minimize the conditions that help them take root. VFF’s Organic Forest Ecosystem Conservation Checklisoffers guidance. Log under frozen winter conditions. Use a log forwarder to roll logs over the ground instead of skidding. Minimize access trails. When you need to build an access path, carefully plan it as gently sloped line of grace with plenty of drainage so that it resists erosion. The point is to work with your forest–a process that benefits the whole forest community of which you’re a part.

Spoon carved from common buckthorn, an invasive exotic understory tree.
Hand-carved buckthorn spoon, with live buckthorn in background.