Buckthorn tree? There are three

A READER emailed me to ask the best way to propagate buckthorn trees.

He didn’t say which species of buckthorn — there are three.

The common, or purging, buckthorn is a native Irish shrub that can grow 10 metres tall. It is common on lime-rich soils in the Midlands and, as a prostrate shrub, is found in the Burren.

The alder buckthorn is also native, but rarer, and is absent from the south-east and the north-west. It, too, is shrubby or prostrate, and even in tree form it’s smaller, reaching a maximum height of 5 metres. It’s not as fussy about soil type as the common buckthorn. Both species, as small or prostrate specimens, often form part of the unique flora of turloughs.

Sea buckthorn, the third, is not an Irish native and comes from China. It has been planted, mostly in sandy coastal areas, because its extensive root system controls erosion. The highest concentration of sea buckthorn in the country is in Co Wexford. There’s also some on Dublin’s Bull Island.

Sea buckthorn is distinctive because of its coastal habitat, its dense, thorny structure and the large numbers of bright orange/yellow berries on female plants in autumn. Because the crop is heavy, it is a winter food for birds and small mammals.

The two native buckthorns are hard to tell apart. They are both less thorny, sometimes without thorns, and in both species female trees bear one-centimetre diameter berries that ripen to a purplish black. To tell them apart, consult a field guide or the internet.

The two native species were commoner and often planted commercially. Buckthorn charcoal was valued by gunpowder mills and the berries were sold in markets for two purposes — to make a dye for fabrics and as a purgative or laxative. These uses are obsolete, but the two native species are the only food plant of the caterpillar of the beautiful brimstone butterfly.

Luckily for the reader who emailed me, the same propagation method is recommended for all the buckthorn species. Collect ripe berries in the autumn, immediately extract the seeds, wash off juice or pulp, and plant them in soil or compost containing lime. Leave the pots outdoors through the winter and seedlings will appear in the spring. This can result in 90% to 100% germination. The buckthorns are dioecous, which means you will need both males and females, along with insects, to pollinate them. In the wild, the sex ratio for purging buckthorn is one male tree to six or seven females.

Nature table


The woodcock is technically a wading bird, but in fact it never wades. It spends the daylight hours roosting on the woodland floor where it’s camouflaged by its plumage, the exact colour of dead leaves.

It feeds at night, normally in open farmland, and often uses its long beak to probe cow-pats, leaving a series of knitting needle size holes. It’s looking for worms and grubs which it can sense using nerves in the tip of the beak. When it finds something it can curl back the top mandible to grab it.

A small and declining number of woodcock breed in this country but large numbers arrive here in November from Norway and as far east as Siberia. Some remain until late March or April, often moving to coastal areas for short periods of time when the ground freezes at night, preventing them from feeding.

Other continue on down the fly-way, some even making it as far as the Canary Islands, before returning to their sub-arctic breeding grounds.

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