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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Join the 'Buckthorn Watch': Citizens Needed to Track Invasive Plant in Ohio, Mich., Iowa

August 29, 2011

WOOSTER, Ohio -- University scientists are trying to find out if common buckthorn is really common in Ohio, Michigan and Iowa -- and will be counting on residents of these states to spot the invasive plant, report their findings online and help fight agricultural and household pests that benefit from its presence in the landscape.

"Buckthorn Watch" ( is a citizen science program established by Ohio State University, Michigan State University and Iowa State University to map, study and manage this fast-growing shrub -- which was introduced in the early 1800s by European settlers and can grow up to 22 feet tall, taking over disturbed areas along roads and railroad rights-of-way, near power lines, in fencerows separating crop fields, and on the edges of forests.

"We really want people to go out in the nice fall weather and look for buckthorn on their farms, properties, woods, parks or private land where they have permission to go," said Mary Gardiner, assistant professor of entomology and director of the Agricultural Landscape Ecology Lab at Ohio State's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster.

"We especially want people to join this program and report buckthorn sites during the months of September and October, as we seek to expand our community of volunteers and collect as much data as possible regarding the distribution of this invasive plant across north-central states."

The Buckthorn Watch website, Gardiner said, provides all the information necessary for people to get involved, including plant identification tips and information about buckthorn's many environmental and economic detriments. Before hunting for the prolific shrub, however, volunteers need to register on the site and watch a brief tutorial, which will certify them as members of the Buckthorn Watch.

"Once members are certified, they can go ahead and report buckthorn infestations in their area," explained Gardiner, who is also a specialist with OSU Extension. "They should note the location of the find, and when they log on to our reporting site, they will be able to pinpoint the infestation using Google Maps. The site will also ask them to estimate the rough size of the infestation and how dense it is. We would also love to see pictures of the sites and of the buckthorn hunters themselves."

Among its many impacts, common buckthorn (Rhamnus chathartica) provides a food source and overwintering quarters for the also-invasive soybean aphid, which reduces crop yields and leads to increased pesticide use on farms -- not to mention its role in spreading plant viruses to vegetable crops. Soybean aphids are also a preferred food source for the exotic multicolored Asian ladybeetle, which feeds on fruits in late summer, contributes to the decline of native ladybeetle populations, and invades homes during the winter.

Additionally, buckthorn causes loss of native herbaceous plants in the forest understory and contributes to the proliferation of exotic earthworms, which have negative impacts on forest soil organisms.

"Buckthorn Watch is an excellent program for schools, youth groups, master gardeners, farmers and others interested in the outdoors and the protection of our agricultural and natural resources," Gardiner said.

Buckthornn Watch members can also help with another aspect of the project: the Aphid Hunt. Volunteers will receive an e-mail notice each spring and fall that includes a two-week sampling period, during which they are asked to survey a buckthorn site they have previously reported, look for soybean aphids, and mail (for free) any insects and infested leaves they find to the program's researchers.

In partnership with the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network (MISIN), Buckthorn Watch will develop a map of the distribution of common buckthorn across the north-central U.S. Other outcomes include more and better data to assess the correlation between buckthorn and soybean aphid populations, and the development of predictive models to more precisely determine the risk of soybean fields becoming infested by aphids.

For more information and for a hard copy of the Buckthorn Watch bulletin, contact Gardiner at 330-263-3643 or

Buckthorn Watch has been made possible thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Mauricio Espinoza
Mary Gardiner