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Izaak Walton is removing buckthorn and other invasive species

Izaak Walton board member Clayton Wassilak points to what he said used to be a “massive green wall” of buckthorn “that separated [hikers] from civilization.” (Nick Ulanowski/H-F Chronicle)

If you see cleared space at Izaak Walton Preserve in Homewood, it’s likely a part of their ongoing mission to replace invasive species with native vegetation. 

Izaak Walton board member Clayton Wassilak spoke passionately about how the preserve seeks to improve its natural ecosystem and create a more pleasant space for hikers, fishers, cyclists and other community members. 

Many of the plants found at Izaak Walton and throughout the United States are native to Europe and Asia, not North America. While it’s not the only way Eurasian plants were brought to the United States, Wassilak said it was mostly because of the big box stores selling them for people’s yards and gardens. Birds ate the seeds and spread the invasive species when they defecated.

Invasive species are cut down or pulled out by Izaak Walton volunteers and dabbed with herbicide so they don’t grow back. Wassilak said herbicide speeds up the process, especially for volunteers who don’t want to hurt their backs when pulling out the root. He said volunteers try their best to never apply too much herbicide so the soil isn’t damaged. 

Notably, Izaak Walton volunteers such as Wassilak have been working to remove common buckthorn, a small tree or shrub native to Europe, northwest Africa and western Asia. Until recently, it grew all along the trails at the preserve, he said.

“That buckthorn was anywhere from 30 to 50 years old,” Wassilak said.

The Illinois Exotic Weeds Act made buckthorn illegal to sell in Illinois in 1985.

“When restoration starts, in certain cases, you completely de-nude the landscape. Because people are so used to seeing this tunnel, this cathedral of greenery,” Wassilak said, adding that before the buckthorn was removed, it was a “massive green wall that separated [hikers] from civilization.”

While buckthorn can be aesthetically pleasing, its shadow prevents the growth of other plants and its wood can be toxic to the native soil. 

“Even though it looked super pretty because it was green, we are in an ecological desert,” Wassilak said. “You didn’t see very many insects. You didn’t see very many birds. Because there wasn’t enough food for them to live there.”

Removing buckthorn and other invasive species also will result in wider flower growth. Wassilak pointed to a small patch of bloodroot, a white flower, that already had begun growing this spring near where invasive shrubs were removed.

Izaak Walton President John Brinkman said that while the preserve is removing many other invasive species, the removal of buckthorn is “one of our biggest projects.”

Brinkman said new native plants will be planted at Izaak Walton this month. They’ve already planted white pines and oak trees, he said.

Illinois nature preserves removing buckthorn is not unique to Izaak Walton. According to the Chicago Tribune, it makes up to 32% of the invasive species at Cook County forest preserves. Volunteers at the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District’s Irons Oaks, at Vollmer Road and Western Avenue, work to remove buckthorn from the nature center.

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