Autumn Olive, Buckthorn and Privet, Oh My!

By Audra Ebling

Once you see them, you can’t un-see them.

Invasive plant species, that is. They are everywhere. My first personal experience with invasive species occurred when we bought a house on the north side of Chicago in the mid 90s that had a morning glory-type vine crawling its way up the garage. Charming, I thought. Fast forward to midsummer, when every morning I would awake to dozens upon dozens of new sprouts, bursting forth from every corner of the lawn and garden, seemingly plotting to take over every structure, every plant, in sight. I did some research and was dismayed but not completely surprised to find out that this vine was considered one of the most invasive plants on Earth! Not quite so charming anymore.

Fast forward again to living in Beverly Shores. Garlic mustard eradication is a way of life around here and while I had a vague knowledge of buckthorn and burning bush being problematic, I hadn’t given as much thought to the invasive shrubs in our midst. Thanks to the Heinze Trust, I recently received a much-needed crash course on several species that are threatening to crowd out native plants in the prairies and wetlands and woodlands in the area. It can be overwhelming to know where to start but with a bit of education and guidance, my family and I found that it’s remarkably easy to jump right in.

Everett and Brian

As new Adopt-a-Trail volunteers, my husband Brian, college student son Everett and I headed to McAllister Prairie in Beverly Shores last weekend. Under the guidance of seasoned veteran volunteer, Terry Bonace, we zeroed in on three undesirable shrubs: Buckthorn, Privet and Autumn Olive.

Brian and privet

Being the first weekend in March, nature had yet to reveal any hints of new green. Thickets of seemingly bare branches dotted the sunny prairie spaces. My first thought was that it might be tricky to identify a shrub without distinctive leaves to positively identify it. But Terry showed us how to look for certain features: a type of branching, a speckled pattern or tiny buds, for example. And he explained that this was the optimal time to cut down these shrubs and apply herbicide to prevent them from spreading further, before the sap started running.

Terry’s Tools

After a brief tour of the preserve and an introduction to the tools required for the task, we settled into a comfortable workflow. Brian, Everett and I, along with another volunteer, Kevin, lopped off offending branches near to the ground and Terry dabbed the remaining stumps with herbicide. Some of the more mature limbs were too thick for loppers and required a small saw. Younger, slimmer saplings could be lopped quickly and easily. We dragged the limbs into tidy piles, which will eventually break down.

We learned a lot in a short time. We feel ready for our next outing to help continue to restore the prairie (an added bonus: we learned how much we need to do in our own backyard to make way for native species to flourish again). Our first time at McAllister wasn’t just educational, it was fun and relaxing. After a fairly isolated winter during a global pandemic, we got to enjoy an unseasonably warm afternoon in the company of new acquaintances, safely distanced outdoors. Hearing the birds call to each other and feeling the sun’s rays slanting through the branches, I felt like it was doing more than melting the last remnants of the whirlwind winter we had. It was offering hope for even better days ahead.

Terry and Kevin


Learn more about volunteering in nature with Shirley Heinze Land Trust.