buckthorn, common name for some members of the Rhamnaceae, a family of woody shrubs, small trees, and climbing vines widely distributed throughout the world. The buckthorns (several species of the genus Rhamnus) and the jujube (Ziziphus jujuba) are cultivated for their ornamental foliage. The jujube was also used locally and exported for use in confectionery and as a flavoring, now largely replaced by artificial flavorings. The lotus of Tennyson's "Lotus-Eaters" is thought to have been the jujube. Other members of the family yield dyes and a limited amount of lumber, e.g., cogwood, a hardwood. Other American species of Rhamnus are the redberry, the Indian cherry, and, in California, Rhamnus purshiana, which yields the purgative cascara sagrada. Buckthorn is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Rhamnales.

For the genus Hippophae, see Sea-buckthorn.

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 genus is divided into two subgenera, sometimes treated as separate genera:

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.

Italian Buckthorn (R. alaternus), an evergreen species from the Mediterranean region, has become a serious weed in some parts of New Zealand—especially on Hauraki Gulf islands.

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.

Sanguinho (R. glandulosa) is endemic to the Macaronesian islands, where it is found in the laurisilva forests of the Madeira and Canary Islands.

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.

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