A bounty on buckthorn: How conservation group is targeting invasive plant

Buckthorn is an invasive tree not native to the Midwest that grows quickly in yards and wooded areas, forcing out native species. Courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden, 2022

As gardeners get antsy to start planting, a Lake Zurich-based conservation group is offering a “buckthorn bounty” to homeowners who clear their landscapes of the tenacious invader.

After transforming two publicly owned sites, the Ancient Oaks Foundation is turning its attention to private properties by offering up to $150 per household to battle the pervasive enemy of native and noninvasive plants.

“Buckthorn is overwhelming,” said Mary Kozub, president of the nonprofit organization. “It's only $150, but it is an incentive.”

Participants can earn $2 for stumps ½-inch to 3¾ inches in diameter and $5 for stumps 4 inches in diameter and above. Homeowners can register on the foundation’s website,, upload “before” photos and wait for instructions. The website includes a how-to video, detailed removal instructions and other information.

“We also will do a home visit. It helps you identify buckthorn and gives you an idea of our program and what's involved,” said Kozub, a longtime Lake Zurich resident who worked 22 years at the McHenry County Conservation District.

The group began as a volunteer arm of the Lake Zurich parks department in 2007 to help restore Oak Ridge Marsh Nature Park. It then shifted focus to Kuechmann Arboretum, a hidden park that was transformed to a natural attraction and reintroduced in summer 2021.

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Since the bounty was introduced last fall through a soft launch on Facebook, 10 households have completed the program, said coordinator and Ancient Oaks founder Judi Thode. About $1,000 has been distributed, with $9,000 remaining.

The Lake Zurich-based Ancient Oaks Foundation has issued a “buckthorn bounty” to encourage homeowners to remove the invasive species. Courtesy of Ancient Oaks Foundation

“That should buy us a lot of buckthorn, we're hoping,” Kozub said. “We think we might be the only nonprofit in our region that is taking it on.”

Kozub has given presentations about the program in Kildeer, Hawthorn Woods, Lake Barrington and Ela Township, and is working to establish partnerships with contractors and others.

A landscape assessment led to a group of Grayslake volunteers taking on invasive buckthorn

Buckthorn, which can grow up to 22 feet, forms dense thickets that block the sun from native plants. It's recognizable as being among the last plants to hold onto its leaves in the fall and one of the first to produce them in spring, making it easy to spot and cut now because nothing else is growing.

Removing buckthorn and other invasive species is key to improving the quality and health of landscapes, say those in the field.

Chicago Bears helping forest preserves clear out invasive buckthorn near Halas Hall

Buckthorn releases a chemical called emodin that stunts the growth of other organisms and can prevent spring flowers, oak seedlings and other plants from growing by shading them out.

Its berries also have a diuretic effect on birds, which spread buckthorn seeds across property lines and to nearby natural areas, making it a constant problem for conservationists and agencies like the Lake County Forest Preserve District to eradicate and control.

The forest board on Tuesday approved two contracts totaling $260,391 for season-long control of invasive plants in the eastern and western parts of the Lake County.

“It is the most time-consuming task faced by district natural restoration crews and is a significant challenge to habitat conservation,” according to forest district documents.

The district does not have a program that pays private property owners to remove buckthorn but is exploring grant opportunities to create a cost-share program, said Brett Peto, environmental communications specialist.

The public also can request specific advice from forest preserve staff by emailing or calling (847) 367-6640. Free, in-person presentations are available to community groups on request.

Articles, videos, photos and other information to identify, remove and replace buckthorn with native plants is available at

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