Kennicott not to blame
In a letter published on April 19, C.W. Hays of Lake Forest falsely suggested that naturalist Robert "Kennicott was responsible for bringing the invasive buckthorn plant from Europe to the United States as food for birds and use as a hedge." The purpose of this letter is to refute this theory, relying on a well-researched 2012 article appearing in Northeastern Naturalist.
The authors begin by reminding their readers that "too often histories are taken as 'common knowledge' without any authentication." After a careful review, they suggest that common buckthorn was present in the United States during the 19th century, and they agreed that entry was during "colonial times." They point out that buckthorn takes between nine and 20 years to reach reproductive maturity, which indicates an introduction before the turn of the 19th century. This predates the births of both Robert Kennicott (Nov. 13, 1835) and his father, Dr. John Kennicott (Jan. 5, 1802).
Buckthorn was common in hedges in Pennsylvania and New York. In 1834, the first common buckthorn hedge was reported to be located in Salem, Massachusetts. The date and location of buckthorn into the Midwestern United States from New England could not be determined by the authors. However, in 1849, its cultivation as a hedge plant was recommended by the Wisconsin Farmer.
It should be noted that The Grove Archives has copies of Dr. Kennicott's nursery catalogs, and he did not sell common buckthorn. In addition, he frequently spoke to audiences about using Osage orange trees as hedges and indeed, many of his original trees continue to thrive at The Grove today.
While we agree with reader Hays about the damaging properties of common buckthorn, there is no evidence that either Robert Kennicott or his father, Dr. John Kennicott, were involved with bringing common buckthorn to the United States.
Elizabeth Kopp, Historian
Grove National Historic Landmark