This deciduous, glossy-leaved shrub with showy berries is an excellent addition to partially sunny areas of the landscape. The bright green leaves retain their gloss even as they turn yellow in fall, and the berries put on a show of colors throughout the growing season and into winter. Carolina buckthorn commonly grows 12 to 15 feet tall with an airy, rounded crown in part shade and a dense, shrubby form in full sun. It thrives in a wide range of soils and habitats and tolerates drought and dry soils. In spring, tiny yellow-green flowers bloom in clusters at the bases of the leaves. They are followed by pea-sized green fruits that gradually change to bright red, then black. The immature fruits contain anthraquinones, which prevent early consumption by wildlife. The chemicals are present to a lesser extent in mature fruits and have a laxative effect on animals’ digestive systems, resulting in quick seed dispersal. Though some sources say the fruits are sweet and edible, they are mildly toxic to humans and should be eaten with care, if at all. Another common name, Indian cherry, may have arisen from Native Americans’ use of the berries to induce vomiting.
Despite its common name, this particular buckthorn species does not have thorns. Species in the Frangula genus are characterized by naked winter buds, or tightly folded miniature leaves that are not protected by scales. This distinctive feature is a great help in winter identification. Carolina buckthorn has no serious pest or disease issues.
Native habitats include forests, limestone bluffs, bottomlands, ravines, and stream banks. Very useful as a hedge or screen. Use in naturalized areas, informal gardens, pollinator gardens, and meadows.
Grows 12-15’ tall and up to 40’ tall in shadier conditions.
Prefers part shade or full sun.
Grows in dry, moist, and well-drained clay, loamy, and sandy soils.
Clusters of 2-10 flowers bloom May–June with five tiny petals alternating with five stamens. Fruits are 1/3” wide--each contains 3 large stones pressed together so that each stone has a rounded side and 2 flattened sides.
Alternate, ovate or elliptic leaves are up to 5” long with slightly toothed margins and 8-10 pairs of prominent veins.
Several main stems are covered with thin, smooth, gray-brown bark that may have darker blotches, scattered lenticels, and shallow fissures.
Host plant for caterpillars of gray hairstreak (larva and adult pictured first), spring azure (adult pictured last), and Henry’s elfin butterflies. Fruits are eaten by many species of birds, including gray catbirds, pileated woodpeckers, robins, waxwings, and grosbeaks. Mice and other small mammals eat the seeds. Leaves and bark are browsed by deer.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used the fruits and tea from the bark to induce vomiting.
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