Every good story has a villain. A villain is the “bad” character who adds interest to
the plot. There’s the whale in Moby Dick. Darth Vader in Star Wars. Satan is the ultimate villain in Paradise Lost. Each villain adds flavor to the story.
I say with the utmost confidence that buckthorn is one bad villain residing in
Before we lived in Brookfield, we bought our first house in a quiet Milwaukee
neighborhood. I reignited my love of gardening, creating tidy plots of vegetables, ivy trellises, and planted a variety of perennials. We had a minimum of weeds, and watering was easy in the city space.
When we moved to Brookfield, I was ecstatic at the amount of gardening space we had available. We bought an older lot, with areas that were densely forested. As we inventoried the variety of fruit trees, perennials and wild flowers in our new suburban-sized space, we came upon a plant that seemed to pop up everywhere.
It was pretty. Its shiny leaves stayed green even in the cold. The birds liked the
dark berries. It seemed like a win-win situation all around.
We tried pulling the plants we didn’t want, and discovered the roots not only
reached to China, they possessed some kind of magical force that actually
pulled back when you tried to destroy them. We managed to get rid of a few
smaller plants, and moved on to the larger bushes. That’s when we discovered
(after a few colorful words as our hands were pricked) these plants actually
had thorns. And they were unmovable.
We lopped them off at the base, only to have half a dozen shoots erupt where we
cut the plants. We consulted a landscaper, who gave a name to our garden villains. He sighed when he said it. “It’s buckthorn.” It is a non-native plant
to Wisconsin, very invasive, and extremely challenging to remove. Villain, I
The landscaper, our neighbors, and fellow buckthorn victims gave us options on
how to remove it. We could pull the smaller ones, like we had been doing. We
could cut the larger plants and apply a poison to the cut branch. We could fire-bomb the entire yard, but that would destroy the good plants and violate a few city ordinances.
Every year for the past 10 years, we’ve tried new removal strategies. One of my
favorites was to cover a patch with five inches of mulch, thinking it would die
from lack of sun. It thrived. I dug out a huge plant, actually reaching roots
in China. It came back the next year.
I’ve finally come to a kind of truce with the villain of our Brookfield yard. (There
are also other villains in our suburban neighborhood yards. Buckthorn has an
unholy alliance with garlic mustard, dandelions and clover.) Yes, we will
continue to destroy plants every year. And yes, we fully expect some to return
next season. Acceptance is good, right?
For now, the buckthorn growing between our vegetables and perennials is making our Brookfield story interesting. We do our best to prune the weeds from the beauty, even if it takes persistence and unfailing fortitude.
Such is life in modern day suburbia.