Biological Invasions

, Volume 9, Issue 8, pp 925–937 | Cite as

Ecology and ecosystem impacts of common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica): a review

  • Kathleen S. Knight
  • Jessica S. Kurylo
  • Anton G. Endress
  • J. Ryan Stewart
  • Peter B. Reich
Original Paper


In this review, we synthesize the current knowledge of the ecology and impacts of Rhamnus cathartica L., a shrub from Europe and Asia that is a successful invader in North America. Physiological studies have uncovered traits including shade tolerance, rapid growth, high photosynthetic rates, a wide tolerance of moisture and drought, and an unusual phenology that may give R. cathartica an advantage in the environments it invades. Its high fecundity, bird-dispersed fruit, high germination rates, seedling success in disturbed conditions, and secondary metabolite production may also contribute to its ability to rapidly increase in abundance and impact ecosystems. R. cathartica impacts ecosystems through changes in soil N, elimination of the leaf litter layer, possible facilitation of earthworm invasions, unsubstantiated effects on native plants through allelopathy or competition, and effects on animals that may or may not be able to use it for food or habitat.


Allelopathy Buckthorn Competition Dispersal Growth Invasive Nitrogen Reproduction Rhamnus cathartica 



We thank everyone who shared with us their observations and unpublished studies as well as associate editor Dr Ingrid Parker and the anonymous reviewers whose suggestions greatly improved this manuscript.


  1. Alsum EM (2003) Fifty years later: an assessment of the influence of common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica L.) and of change in overstory vegetation in several floodplain forests of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. Master’s Thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 123 ppGoogle Scholar
  2. Apfelbaum SL, Haney A (1991) Management of degraded oak savanna remnants in the Upper Midwest: preliminary results from three years of study. In: John Ebinger (ed) Proceedings of the Oak Woods management workshop, Peoria, pp 81–89Google Scholar
  3. Archibold OW, Brooks D, Delanoy L (1997) An investigation of the invasive shrub European Buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica L., near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Can Field Nat 111:617–621Google Scholar
  4. Barnes WJ (1972) The autecology of the Lonicera × bella complex. Dissertation, University of WisconsinGoogle Scholar
  5. Baskin CC, Baskin JM (1998) Seeds: ecology, biogeography, and evolution of dormancy and germination. Academic Press, New York, p. 666Google Scholar
  6. Bisikwa J (2005) Establishment and management of European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica L.). Dissertation, University of Minnesota, 117 ppGoogle Scholar
  7. Bohlen PJ, Scheu S, Hale CM et al (2004) Non-native invasive earthworms as agents of change in northern temperate forests. Front Ecol Environ 2:427–435CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Boudreau D, Wilson G (1992) Buckthorn research and control at Pipestone National Monument (Minnesota). Restor Manage Notes 10:94–95Google Scholar
  9. Byers JE, Reichard S, Randall JM et al (2002) Directing research to reduce the impacts of nonindigenous species. Conserv Biol 16:630–640CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Clapham AR, Tutin TG, Warburg EF (1987) Flora of the British Isles. 3rd edn. Cambridge University Press, Great Britain, pp. 688Google Scholar
  11. Coates KD, Emmingham WH, Radosevich SR (1991) Conifer-seedling success and microclimate at different levels of herb and shrub cover in a Rhododendron-Vaccinium menziesia community of south central British Columbia. Can J For Res 21:858–866CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Darwin C (1877) The different forms of flowers on plants of the same species. John Murray, London, pp. 352Google Scholar
  13. Deitz SM (1926) The alternate hosts of crown rust, Puccinia coronata Corda. J Agric Res 33:953–970Google Scholar
  14. Deno NC (1993) Seed germination theory and practice. 2nd edn. State College, Pennsylvania pp. 242Google Scholar
  15. DeWalt SJ, Denslow JS, Ickes K (2004) Natural-enemy release facilitates habitat expansion of the invasive tropical shrub Clidemia hirta. Ecology 85(2):471–483CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dijkstra FA, Wrange K, Hobbie SE et al (2006) Tree patches show higher N losses but maintain higher N availability than grassland patches in a frequently burned oak savanna. Ecosystems 9:441–452CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Francis GW, Aksnes DW, Holt O (1998) Assignment of the 1H and 13C NMR spectra of anthraquinone glycosides from Rhamnus frangula. Magn Reson Chem 36:769–772CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gassmann A (2005) Developing biological control of buckthorns. In: Skinner LC (ed) Proceedings: symposium on the biology, ecology and management of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), St Paul, May 2005. USDA Forest Service Publication, St Paul, pp 55–57Google Scholar
  19. Gill DS, Marks PL (1991) Tree and shrub seedling colonization of old fields in central New York. Ecol Monogr 61:183–205CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Godwin H (1936) Studies in the ecology of Wicken Fen III: the establishment and development of fen scrub (carr). J Ecol 24:82–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Godwin H (1943) Biological flora of the British Isles: Rhamnaceae. J Ecol 31:66–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gorchov DL, Trisel DE (2003) Competitive effects of the invasive shrub, Lonicera maackii (Rupr.) Herder (Caprifoliaceae), on the growth and survival of native tree seedlings. Plant Ecol 166:13–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gourley LC (1985) A study of the ecology and spread of Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica L.) with particular reference to the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 166 ppGoogle Scholar
  24. Gourley LC, Howell E (1984) Factors in Buckthorn invasion documented; control measures checked (Wisconsin). Restor Manage Notes 2:87Google Scholar
  25. Grubb PJ, Lee WG, Kollmann J et al (1996) Interaction of irradiance and soil nutrient supply on growth of seedlings of ten European tall-shrub species and Fagus sylvatica. J Ecol 84:827–840CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Grubb PJ, Kollmann J, Lee WG (1999) A garden experiment on susceptibility to rabbit grazing, sapling growth rates, and age at first reproduction for eleven European woody species. Plant Biol 1:226–234Google Scholar
  27. Gurney R (1958) Trees of Britain. Faber and Faber, London pp. 228Google Scholar
  28. Hale CM, Frelich LE, Reich PB (2005) Exotic European earthworm invasion dynamics in northern hardwood forests of Minnesota, USA. Ecol Appl 15:848–860CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Harrington RA, Brown BJ, Reich PB (1989a) Ecophysiology of exotic and native shrubs in southern Wisconsin I. Oecologia 80:356–367CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Harrington RA, Brown BJ, Reich PB et al (1989b) Ecophysiology of exotic and native shrubs in southern Wisconsin II: annual growth and carbon gain. Oecologia 80:368–373CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Heit CE (1968) Propagation from seed. Am Nurseryman 128:8–10, 70–80Google Scholar
  32. Hendriksen NB (1990) Leaf litter selection by detritivore and geophagous earthworms. Biol Fertil Soils 10:17–21Google Scholar
  33. Heneghan L (2003) And when they got together...impacts of Eurasian earthworm and invasive shrubs on Chicago woodland ecosystems. Chicago Wilderness J 1:27–31Google Scholar
  34. Heneghan L (2005) Impact of Rhamnus cathartica (European Buckthorn) on Midwestern woodland ecosystems and the implications for restoration management. In: Skinner LC (ed) Proceedings: symposium on the biology, ecology and management of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), St Paul, May 2005. USDA Forest Service Publication, St Paul, pp 42–48Google Scholar
  35. Heneghan L, Clay C, Brundage C (2002) Rapid decomposition of Buckthorn litter may change soil nutrient levels. Ecol Restor 20:108–111Google Scholar
  36. Heneghan L, Rauschenberg C, Fatemi F et al (2004) European Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and its effects on some ecosystem properties in an urban woodland. Ecol Restor 22:275–280Google Scholar
  37. Heneghan L, Faterni R, Umek L et al (2006) The invasive shrub European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica, L.) alters soil properties in Midwestern U.S. woodlands. Appl Soil Ecol 32:142–148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Heneghan L, Steffen J, Fagen K (2006) Interactions of an introduced shrub and introduced earthworms in an Illinois urban woodland: Impact on leaf litter decomposition. Pedobiologia 50:543–551CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Hughes JW, Cass WB (1997) Pattern and process of a floodplain forest, Vermont, USA: predicted responses of vegetation to perturbation. J Appl Ecol 34:594–612CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Hulme FE (1914) Wild fruits of the country-side. F.A. Stokes Co., New York pp. 221Google Scholar
  41. Izhaki I (2002) Emodin—a secondary metabolite with multiple ecological functions in higher plants. New Phytol 155:205–217CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. James S (1995) Systematics, biogeography and ecology of nearctic earthworms from eastern central southern and southwestern United States. In: Hendrix PF (ed) Earthworm ecology and biogeography in North America. Lewis, Boca Raton, pp 29–52Google Scholar
  43. Kasmer J, Shefferson R (2002) Effects of removing an invasive understory shrub on growth of canopy trees in northeastern Illinois. Ecol Restor 20:209–210Google Scholar
  44. Kennedy GJ (2000) Low foliar nitrogen resorption proficiency in nitrogen-fixing, temperate deciduous trees and shrubs. Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 35 ppGoogle Scholar
  45. Knight KS (2006) Factors that influence invasion success of two woody invaders of forest understories. Dissertation, University of Minnesota, 161 ppGoogle Scholar
  46. Knight KS, Reich PB (2005) Opposite relationships between invasibility and native species richness at patch versus landscape scales. Oikos 109:81–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Kollmann J, Grubb PJ (1999) Recruitment of fleshy-fruited species under different shrub species: control by under-canopy environment. Ecol Res 14:9–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lei TT, Semones SW, Walker JF et al (2002) Effects of Rhododendron maximum thickets on tree seed dispersal, seedling morphology, and survivorship. Int J Plant Sci 163:991–1000CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Leitner LA (1985) An alien shrub in a changing landscape: the European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica L.) in southeastern Wisconsin. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 403 ppGoogle Scholar
  50. Malicky H, Sobhian R, Zwolfer H (1970) Investigations on the possibilities of a biological control of Rhamnus cathartica in Canada: host ranges, feeding sites, and phenology of insects associated with European Rhamnaceae. Z Angew Entomol 65:77–97Google Scholar
  51. Mäurer R, Seemüller E (1996) Witches’ broom of Rhamnus catharticus: a new phytoplasma disease. J Phytopathol 144:221–223Google Scholar
  52. Possessky SL, Williams CE, Moriarty WJ (2000) Glossy Buckthorn, Rhamnus frangula L.: a threat to riparian plant communities of the northern allegheny plateau (USA). Nat Area J 20:290–292Google Scholar
  53. Reich PB, Oleksyn J, Modrzynski J et al (2005) Tree species, litter calcium, earthworms and soil properties. Ecol Lett 8:811–818CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Rejmánek M (1996) A theory of seed plant invasiveness: the first sketch. Biol Conserv 78:171–181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Ridley NH (1930) The dispersal of plants throughout the world. L.R. Reeve and Company Ltd, Ashford Kent, pp. 744Google Scholar
  56. Rodwell JS, Pigott CD, Ratcliffe DA et al (1991) British plant communities, vol 1 (woodlands and scrub). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 395Google Scholar
  57. Rooney TP, Waller DM (2003) Direct and indirect effects of white-tailed deer in forest ecosystems. For Ecol Manage 181:165–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Saxe H, Cannell MGR, Johnsen O et al (2001) Tree and forest functioning in response to global warming. New Phytol 149:369–400CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Schmidt KA, Whelan CJ (1999) Effects of exotic Lonicera and Rhamnus on songbird nest predation. Conserv Biol 13:1502–1506CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Scriver BM (2005) Consequences of oak savanna restoration techniques on the re-invasion of non-native invasive shrubs, particularly Rhamnus cathartica L. (common buckthorn). Dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 153 ppGoogle Scholar
  61. Seltzner S, Eddy TL (2003) Allelopathy in Rhamnus cathartica, European buckthorn. Mich Bot 42:51–61Google Scholar
  62. Sherburne JA (1972) Effects of seasonal changes in the abundance and chemistry of the fleshy fruits of northeastern woody shrubs on patterns of exploitation by frugivorous birds. Dissertation, Cornell University, 157 ppGoogle Scholar
  63. Simberloff D, Von Holle M (1999) Synergistic interactions of nonindigenous species: invasional meltdown? Biol Invasions 1:21–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Stewart JR, Graves WR (2004) Photosynthesis and growth of Rhamnus caroliniana during drought and flooding: comparisons to the invasive Rhamnus cathartica. HortScience 39:1278–1282Google Scholar
  65. Stewart JR, Graves WR (2005) Seed germination of Rhamnus caroliniana: implications for ecology and horticulture. HortScience 40:767–770Google Scholar
  66. Sweetman HL (1944) Selection of woody plants as winter food by the cottontail rabbit. Ecology 25:467–472CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Sweetman HL (1949) Further studies of the winter feeding habits of cottontail rabbits. Ecology 30:371–376CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Torrey J (1824) A flora of the northern and middle sections of the United States: or, a systematic arrangement of all the plants hitherto discovered in the United States north of Virginia. vol 1. T. and J. Swords, New York, pp. 513Google Scholar
  69. Trial H Jr, Dimond JB (1979) Emodin in buckthorn: a feeding deterrent to phytophagous insects. Can Entomol 111:207–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Tsahar E, Friedman J, Izhaki I (2002) Impact on fruit removal and seed predation of a secondary metabolite, emodin, in Rhamnus alaternus fruit pulp. Oikos 99:290–299CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. USDA Forest Service (1948) Woody-plant seed manual. USDA Misc. Publication #654Google Scholar
  72. Vanveldhuisen MV, Ragsdale DW, Skinner LC (2005) Survey of insect fauna on common buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica. In: Skinner LC (ed) Proceedings: symposium on the biology, ecology and management of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), St Paul, May 2005. USDA Forest Service Publication, St Paul, pp 58–61Google Scholar
  73. Vázquez DP, Aragón R (2002) Introduction. Biol Invasions 4:1–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Whelan C, Dilger ML (1992) Invasive, exotic shrubs: a paradox for natural area Managers? Nat Area J 12:109–110Google Scholar
  75. Willert JM (2000) Oak savanna restoration: management techniques to inhibit exotic shrub reinvasion. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 142 ppGoogle Scholar
  76. Wolfe BE, Klironomos JN (2005) Breaking new ground: soil communities and exotic plant invasion. BioScience 55:477–487CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Wyckoff P, Jansen R, Patten R (2005) The European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) invasion in west central Minnesota. In: Skinner LC (ed) Proceedings: symposium on the biology, ecology and management of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), St Paul, May 2005. USDA Forest Service Publication, St Paul, pp 49–52Google Scholar
  78. Zavaleta ES, Hobbs RJ, Mooney HA (2001) Viewing invasive species removal in a whole-ecosystem context. Trends Ecol Evol 16:454–459CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathleen S. Knight
    • 1
  • Jessica S. Kurylo
    • 2
  • Anton G. Endress
    • 3
    • 4
  • J. Ryan Stewart
    • 3
  • Peter B. Reich
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Ecology, Evolution, and BehaviorUniversity of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA
  2. 2.Division for Ecology and Conservation ScienceIllinois Natural History SurveyChampaignUSA
  3. 3.Department of Natural Resources and Environmental SciencesUniversity of IllinoisUrbanaUSA
  4. 4.Division of Biodiversity and Ecological EntomologyIllinois Natural History SurveyChampaignUSA
  5. 5.Department of Forest ResourcesUniversity of MinnesotaSt PaulUSA

Personalised recommendations