Carolina buckthorn is unusual among the buckthorns in that it doesn’t have any thorns at all. What it does have are plenty of handsome good looks. The shiny, bright green, finely toothed leaves have prominent veins that lend them an extra element of ornamentation, like fancy stitching. The leaves are even further accentuated in late summer to fall when showy clusters of small, sweet, berry-like drupes ripen from bright red to black and attract a wide variety of birds. The berries are edible and can be made into jellies and jams.
Carolina buckthorn is a great little specimen tree for the small landscape. Although it can reach 30 feet, it rarely does, and most specimens are only 10 to15 feet tall. Carolina buckthorn also works well at the edge of a shady woodland garden or in a partially shaded mixed shrub border.
This dainty little native tree should not be confused with its aggressive Eurasian cousins, common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and glossy buckthorn (Rhamnus fragula), which were introduced in North America as ornamentals for fence rows and wildlife habitats and have become highly invasive. Exotic buckthorns form dense, even-aged thickets that shade and crowd out native species. Carolina buckthorn, on the other hand, is not at all aggressive. It is rarely seen in gardens, and its distribution in the wild remains scattered and sporadic.
Rhamnaceae (Buckthorn Family)
Large deciduous shrub or small tree with veiny, bright green, elliptical leaves measuring 4 to 6" long. Inconspicuous green flowers occur in early summer. 1/3" berry-like drupes are available from late summer to fall. The fruit is quite showy and colorful, changing from green to red to black as it ripens.
Usually 10 to 15’ tall and wide. Rarely reaches 30’.
Large deciduous shrub or small tree with slender branches and an open crown.
Part shade is best.
Plant in moist, alkaline soil. Apply lime if soil is acidic.
Assets include handsome, shiny, bright green leaves in summer; showy clusters of red and black fruit in late summer and fall; and beautiful crimson and auburn fall color.
Plant as a specimen tree in the woodland garden or mixed shrub border.
Fruits are consumed by gray catbirds, brown thrashers, American robins, wood and hermit thrushes, cedar waxwings, and Baltimore orioles.
Found scattered throughout Georgia in the understory of deciduous forests, usually in moist, calcareous soils.
Seed, stem cuttings.
Also known as Indian Cherry, Yellowwood, Polecat Tree
Text and photo by Leslie Kimel, Georgia Wildlife Federation