There comes a time when, even this far north, you’ve had enough of road construction and zucchini and are ready for summer to end. But it hardly looks like autumn here. The landscape is still lush with green leaves on branches laden with the ripe blue-black berries of an invasive species. Northern Wisconsin has been overrun.

Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is a tall understory shrub/tree that leafs out early and holds its leaves long into fall, effectively shading out other plants. The fruit has a laxative effect on birds and other wildlife, causing widespread distribution of new plants from pooped-out seeds that can remain viable in the soil for up to three years.

About 15 years ago we first noticed buckthorn making a foothold here. We defended our rural property as best we could, pulling up young shoots where we saw them. But naturally, we missed some. One of those grew up in the lilac outside our bedroom window. By the time I took action, it was laden with fruit. When I cut that one, I dug the soil from around the stem, wrapped it with heavy black plastic and duct tape, banked the soil around it to prevent new shoots from forming, and burned what I had cut. It felt like a win, at the time. Turns out that was a minor skirmish against a foe that has become entrenched.

Now, the only way to keep buckthorn out would be to keep birds out. I can’t even keep mice out of our buildings and vehicles. Keeping birds out of our airspace so they can’t perch and poop out laxative-laced seeds seems like something only a Marvel superhero could achieve.

If you’ve battled invasive species like kudzu or garlic mustard or felt the economic impact of zebra mussels or the emerald ash borer, you get it: At some point the fight feels futile – like a Little Shop of Horrors where the happy ending foreshadows the wider spread of a relentless alien species.

Some say you have to let yourself feel your feelings, especially uncomfortable ones like futility. That’s not really something we do in the rural Upper Midwest. We politely suppress negative physical reactions to potentially crippling emotions and keep looking for ways around our feelings. This may explain why so many of us own “squirrel-proof” bird feeders and elect candidates who make ironclad promises we know they can’t deliver.

During the midterm election season in a battleground state like Wisconsin, it’s difficult to write about feelings of futility without at least acknowledging the political landscape. Like our fencerows, it has been greatly altered in recent years. Spoiler alert: As stewards of our government, giving up is not an option – so be sure to vote.

Back to buckthorn. 

Buckthorn has me questioning my role and responsibilities as a steward of this land. These are awkward conversations to have with myself. I like a tidy worldview untroubled by challenging concepts cloaked in shades of gray. But the angels and devils on my shoulders keep getting mixed up about where they stand. Can’t blame them: What’s good from one perspective often isn’t from another. 

My angels and devils have had some lively debates about a discussion from an ethnobotany class I took a few years back. The professor explained that we would not focus solely on native species. At some point, aliens can become beneficial naturalized residents of an ecosystem – stuff we plant and nurture and value. Buckthorn came up, and the discussion centered not on if but when it would acquire that status. 

Like apples. And while related to native crabapples, our American-as-apple-pie fruit trees are naturalized from central Asian species. In my home state of Indiana, Johnny Appleseed was celebrated for doing (sort of) what birds are now doing with buckthorn. That thought led to a heated debate among my angels and devils about free will in humans and the divine creation of plant-powered laxative seed dispersal. 

And then this came up. A column in the Cowboy State Daily described wild horses as “an introduced invasive species that we imported ourselves. And we need to manage them accordingly.” This reply from a senior curator in residence at the American Museum of Natural History is well worth reading in its entirety. In short:

Equus caballus is [the] only valid horse species living on the planet today. It is the surviving member the caballines, a specific lineage of horses that arose about 5 million years ago—in North America….But would an even more recent date for horse persistence make any difference to the debate about the presence of wild horses in the West, which is largely about control of the land?

Good question. A thoughtful argument like that one is tough on a tidy worldview. But I think it’s in our best interests to make room for more shades of gray – and not just in our horticultural choices.

Because if you don’t address problems at all you get buckthorn berries in your lilac bush and birds with loose bowels repainting the landscape, crowding out everything else.

Even if, at times, it feels futile, giving up is not an option for us. So here’s our plan. As stewards of this patch of landscape, I accept both native (crab) and naturalized (apples) and other plants that play well with others. We will manage for diversity in plant life that supports the other inhabitants as well. Those include but aren’t limited to myself and my (human) spouse, other mammals, pollinators and other insects, reptiles (preferably shy ones), small life forms necessary for healthy soil, and birds. Even birds that poop out buckthorn seeds. 

To that end, I will keep pulling and cutting and even waging careful chemical warfare against this relentless bully. It will be a challenge to keep piles of the brush we cut of a reasonable size to burn once we have good snow cover. But the prospect of buckthorn bonfires is heartening. Not all futile efforts come with that kind of reward.


Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin. Earlier this year she wrote about how not to burn brush.

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