The Buckthorns (Rhamnus) are a genus (or two genera, if Frangula is treated as distinct) of about 100 species of shrubs or small trees from 1-10 m tall (rarely to 15 m), in the buckthorn family Rhamnaceae. They are native throughout the temperate and subtropical Northern Hemisphere, and also more locally in the subtropical Southern Hemisphere in parts of Africa and South America.
Both deciduous and evergreen species occur. The leaves are simple, 3-15 cm long, and arranged either alternately or in opposite pairs. One distinctive character of many buckthorns is the way the veination curves upward towards the tip of the leaf. The plant bears fruits which are dark blue berries. The name is due to the woody spine on the end of each twig in many species. Buckthorns are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species – see list of Lepidoptera that feed on buckthorns.
The Purging Buckthorn or Common Buckthorn (R. cathartica) is a widespread European native species, in the past used as a purgative, though its toxicity makes this a very risky herbal medicine and it is no longer used. Introduced into the United States as a garden shrub, this has become an invasive species in many areas there. It has recently been discovered to be a primary host of the soybean aphid Aphis glycines, a problem pest for soybean farmers across the US. The aphids use the buckthorn as a host for the winter and then spread to nearby soybean fields in the spring.
Another European species, Alder Buckthorn (R. frangula, syn. Frangula alnus) was of major military importance in the 15th to 19th centuries, as its wood provided the best quality charcoal for gunpowder manufacture.
Dyer's Buckthorn (R. tinctoria) is used, together with the Asian Chinese Buckthorn (R. utilis), to produce the dye "china green". Another species, Avignon Buckthorn (R. saxatilis) provides the yellow dye Persian berry, made from the berries.
North American species include Alder-leaf Buckthorn (R. alnifolia) right across the continent, Carolina Buckthorn (R. (F.) caroliniana) in the east, Cascara Buckthorn (R. (F.) purshiana) in the west, and the evergreen California Buckthorn or Coffeeberry (R. (F.) californica) and Hollyleaf Buckthorn (R. crocea) in the west.
In South America, Rhamnus diffusus is a small shrub native from the Valdivian temperate rain forests in Chile.
Buckthorns may be confused with Dogwoods, which share the curved leaf venation; indeed, "dogwood" is a local name for R. prinoides in southern Africa, a plant used to make Ethiopian mead and known as "gesho" in Ethiopia. The two plants are easy to distinguish by slowly pulling a leaf apart; in dogwood thin white latex strings can be seen, strings not present in buckthorn.