"Buckthorn Menace" stalks river bluffs

Jim Proctor checks on his river bluff creations about once a week.

Photo by Chris Steller

Freakish alien plantlike forms lurk along trail

First, Jim Proctor got mad about buckthorn, that invasive shrub-tree that’s taking over area woodlands.

Then he got even, joining removal crews to tear out buckthorn in Minneapolis and beyond.

Finally, he unleashed his ultimate weapon: sculpture.

Taking uprooted and shorn buckthorn plants, from the tallest trees to the tiniest seedlings, Proctor used drills, lathes and Gorilla Glue to recompose pieces of the rampaging shrub in the image of its more tender and established co-invader, the dandelion.

In December, Proctor planted 16 faux dandelions, made entirely of buckthorn parts, along Seward’s Winchell Trail, a walking path that runs just down the bluff from W. River Parkway at about 24th Street. The sculptures stand in several clumps, towering on sturdy buckthorn trunks as high as 20 feet above the trail.

“The Buckthorn Menace” is a public art project intended to alert people to the buckthorn invasion. And until explanatory signs and flyers went up at either end of the path, it was a mystery to urban hikers who sensed an alien presence but perhaps weren’t sure what to make of it. Proctor believes some horticulturally challenged passersby may think the sculptures are living plants (and actually, the trunks are still alive).

Proctor, whose day job is downtown at the Minneapolis Public Library, usually makes small-scale sculptures, reconfiguring plant materials into novel combinations of thorn, pod and downy hair, with the goal of “making the familiar strange.”

With the buckthorn project, Proctor’s goal was reversed: to make a strange and threatening plant species more familiar to a wider public. If there’s one word he hopes his dandelionesque grotesqueries conjure up, it’s “infestation.”

A former painter who studied wild landscapes for his semiabstractions, Proctor began to notice a dark shrub covering the understory of many local forested areas. By releasing its own herbicide, buckthorn assures itself a monopoly on woodland real estate, he said, and could soon dominate vast stretches from the cities to the wild areas of the country.

The art was inspired by the very removal projects that provided the raw materials for the project: tall stems or trunks left standing but trimmed of branches; baseball-sized spheres of buckthorn made from the heart of the tree, with holes drilled all around; and tough, dark roots stuck into the holes to make sort of dandelion heads. None of the buckthorn parts can propagate.

Buckthorn removal campaigns have been going on for several years locally, led by the Friends of the Mississippi River, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the Seward Neighborhood Group and the Gorge Stewards program. Funding for Proctor’s art came from the Jerome Foundation, first with a grant to travel throughout the country’s Eastern deciduous forest, collecting materials; and then through FORECAST Public Art for the actual construction of the Buckthorn Menace sculptures.

Proctor also cites support of individuals who are mobilized in the fight against buckthorn, such as Mary Lerman of the Minneapolis park staff (who he said wears a shirt bearing the message “Die Buckthorn Scum”) and Scott Vreeland, a Seward resident who was recently elected to the Minneapolis park board.

At his Powderhorn neighborhood home studio, buckthorn is only one of the plants whose various parts and materials fill cardboard trays on tall shelves, waiting to join one of Proctor’s smaller sculptures, which sometimes consist of no more than a pinecone, a delicate stem, and a few feathery wisps of catalpa down.

Occasionally “creaturely” or “chimeric” (to use two of Proctor’s terms), the thorned armor and soft hair of his small-scale plant sculptures “addresses you directly as an animal.” Sometimes encased in custom-made boxes, the small sculptures are meant to last.

But it’s different for the tall buckthorn dandelions along the Winchell Trail. The project is intended to be temporary, to be removed after a year in whatever state the works are in. Park crews will chop down the tall trunks, applying a toxic chemical to them, making way for a healthy native plant community that will still require constant vigilance and maintenance to keep out exotic invaders.

Proctor said he’ll be happy to sell menacing pieces at that time, with all proceeds going to the battle against buckthorn. Z

last revised: August 9, 2006