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Common buckthorn leaves and berries

Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)

Tall understory shrub or small tree up to 20-25’ tall, often with several stems arising from the base, and spreading crown. Gray to brown bark with prominent light-colored lenticels. (Caution: native plums and cherries have a similar bark). Plants are either male or female. Cut bark exposes yellow sapwood and orange heartwood. Twigs often end in stout thorns.


Regulated areas of common buckthorn
Common buckthorn is Restricted (Orange counties)

Other names for this plant include:

  • Common names: Carolina buckthorn, European buckthorn

Ecological threat:

  • Invades oak forests, riparian woods, savannas, prairies, old fields, and roadsides. It thrives particularly on well-drained soils.
  • Common buckthorn has a broad environmental tolerance. It leafs out very early and retains its leaves late into the growing season, giving them a longer growing season than native plants.
  • Creates dense shade, eliminating regeneration of tree seedlings and understory species.
  • Allelopathic; produces chemical compounds that inhibit the growth of other vegetation.

Classification in Wisconsin: Restricted

Species Assessment Groups (SAG) were assembled to recommend a legal classification for each species considered for NR 40. The recommendation for common buckthorn was based upon this literature review developed by the department.


Leaves & stems: Ovate or elliptic, with prominent veins curving toward tip. Mostly opposite leaves, 1-2.5” long, with tiny teeth. Leaves remain on plants and stay green into fall. Bark is gray to brown with prominent light-colored lenticels. Cut bark exposes an orange inner cambium layer.

Flowers: Inconspicuous, small and clustered in leaf axils. Fragrant, greenish-yellow, 4-petaled flowers that bloom in spring.

Fruits & seeds: Abundant clusters of round, black, pea-sized fruit. Ripen on female plants in late summer. Dispersed by birds and mammals. Fruits remain on plants into winter after all the leaves have fallen.

Roots: Extensive, black fibrous root system.

Similar species: Glossy buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula; invasive) is similar to common buckthorn. Leaves are mostly opposite, with greater number of veins. Upper surface of leaves are shiny with undersides dull.

Alder buckthorn (Rhamnus alnifolia; native) is under 3’ tall with thornless twigs. Lance-leafed buckthorn (R. lanceolata; native) is less than 6’ tall, found in wet areas and on dry limestone slopes, and has alternate leaves, 2-6” long, gradually tapering to a point at the tip. Carolina buckthorn (R. caroliniana; native), found in the southern Midwest, is 10-30’ tall with toothed, mostly alternate leaves, 2-3” long.


Known county distribution of common buckthorn
Counties in WI where common buckthorn has been reported (as of July 2011). Both vouchered and unvouchered reports included.

Do you have common buckthorn in your county but it isn't shaded on the map? Send us a report.



  • Small plants may be hand pulled. Prescribed fire for seedlings. Larger plants can be dug or pulled using a leverage tool such as a weed wrench.
  • Girdling trees requires stripping the bark to expose the inner hardwood at a minimum of six inches. Effective any time of year.


  • Cut-stump treatment with glyphosate in late fall
  • Cut-stump or basal bark spray treatment around the stem with triclopyr ester in late fall through the winter.

For more information on control techniques, visit the Common buckthorn factsheet [exit DNR] by University of Wisconsin-Extension.


View common buckthorn pictures in our photo gallery!


Sources for content:

  • Czarapata, Elizabeth; Invasive Plants of the Upper Midwest: an illustrated guide to their identification and control. University of Wisconsin Press. 2005. Pg. 35-41
  • University of Wisconsin-Extension. Common buckthorn factsheet [exit DNR].

Links for More Information

Last revised: Friday May 31 2019