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Dear Harvey,The red and black fruits of Carolina Buckthorn in late fall - a treat for area songbirdsHarvey Cotten
We have some property in the northeastern part of Madison County and I have this small tree growing over much of the area with these red to black seeds. I know that you talk a lot about invasive plants so I would love to know what it is and should I be worried about it growing over so much of the property? Thank you, William J.
Thank you for your question and especially your concern about invasive plants. Sadly we have several plants in our area that have just gotten out of control and it has become increasingly more difficult to be able to manage them in the natural environment. I would say that our top three problem plants are Chinese privet, Bush honeysuckle and Callery pear ( most people would say Bradford pear but it is the straight species of Callery pear that is the problem.) Fortunately for you, your unidentified plant is actually a native to our area Carolina buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana fran-GOO-lah ka-ro-lin-i-AH-na). When I was growing up I learned this plant as Rhamnus caroliniana but several years ago the taxonomists decided that while it was a member of the Buckthorn (Rhamnaceae) family, it did not need to be included in the Genus Rhamnus since it did not have any thorns like the other Buckthorns. Doesn t really matter to me, just need to make sure we get the memo when they start changing plant namesaround on us older guys.
The Carolina Buckthorn is a small tree growing ten to twenty feet tall, most often in the understory of a deciduous forest. The native range is from New York all the way south to Florida and then west to Texas. It has very glossy green leaves, oblong to elliptical in shape with eight to twelve very prominent veins extending from the midrib of the leaf. Fall color is a so-so yellow and the plant doesn t have any real pest or disease issues. The real distinguishing characteristic is the showy fruit clusters that are bright red in late summer and then change to black by November. The bright red fruits are very attractive against the dark, glossy green leaves and the birds do love to eat them from late summer into early winter. The fruits never last all winter long like we see with Holly and Hawthorn trees so we must enjoy them while we can.
Carolina Buckthorn has never really had a place as an ornamental plant for there are so many other small flowering trees with better growing attributes. However, it is a wonderful plant for natural areas, ones that have very little care and especially ones where attracting wildlife, especially birds is an objective.
You mentioned your concern about this being an invasive plant and again I appreciate your sensitivity to this issue. By definition Carolina Buckthorn cannot be classed as an invasive since it is native to our region. Some gardeners might call it a weedy plant since it does come up in thickets or clusters do to the nature of the seeds being spread by birds and germinating easily. This later characteristic is what makes many of our exotic plants invasive especially Chinese privet and Bush honeysuckle. The birds love the fruit and the seeds germinate very easily thus spreading the plant far and wide. In natural areas this would be a much better option to use to replace other invasive plants, especially so that we have food sources for the songbirds. I would encourage you to keep this stand of Carolina Buckthorn growing on your property. Also, the Alabama Invasive Plant Council is an excellent resource for invasive plants in our state. The website is and they have listing of plants that are problems and ones that are potential problems (watch list).
Tips of the Week:
Check soil temperatures before planting tulips best to wait until temperature drops below 60 degrees F.
Fertilize fescue lawns at the rate of one pound of actual nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft.
Store tender summer bulbs and tubers like dahlias and caladiums (also elephant ears and cannas) in dry peat moss in a cool, dark spot with low humidity a basement or garage may be perfect
I look forward to answering all of your gardening questions. Please send your inquiries via email to . For those of you who prefer regular mail, please send to Harvey Cotten c/o The Huntsville Botanical Garden, 4747 Bob Wallace Ave; Hsv, AL 35805. The Garden s website
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