Friday, July 23, 2010

Privet is Hashing My Mellow

Chinese privet in full bloom
Photo courtesy: James H. Miller,
USDA Forest Service,

Chinese privet ligustrum sinese is a category one pest plant in Georgia according to the Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council. Also known as common privet, it is an “exotic plant that is a serious problem in Georgia natural areas by extensively invading native plant communities and displacing native species.” In fact, it has been on the exotic pest plant lists for Florida and Tennessee Councils and the Council that covers the whole Southeast for more than ten years.
Yet we see it everywhere forming neatly trimmed hedges and privacy screens for homeowners and eagerly sold in nurseries. What then is so terrible about this evergreen shrub or small tree with small leaves and insignificant flowers? It seems like it would be a useful tool for a landscape architect’s inventory, right?
Looks pretty innocent when it sprouts
Photo courtesy: James H. Miller,
USDA Forest Service,
Here is the problem. First Chinese privet is a prolific bloomer. In late spring each plant produces a few hundred thousand flowers. All of those little flowers turn into viable seeds which are spread by wind, birds and insects. To further compound the problem, these seeds don’t need any special conditions to germinate, so most of them sprout. Before you know it you have privet volunteering everywhere – not just in tended gardens, but it parks and forest preserves. Because it is evergreen, the privet persists year round so the acorn that falls next to the mighty Oak tree Quercus L. can’t get enough sun to sprout. That means when the oak finally dies of old age, there won’t be a sapling ready to leap into the sun and take its place. Neither will there be wonderful understory trees like Dogwoods Cornus L. and Redbuds Cersis L., or delightful spring ephemerals like trillium Trillium L. and bloodroot Sanguinaria L. Chinese privet, originally introduced to this country as an ornamental in the 1850s will inherit the earth.
Now I’ve known about privet for years. In fact, when we bought this home this aggressive pest had nearly overtaken my back garden. I invested too many hours to count chopping it down and digging it out. I’ve also volunteered at local parks and natural areas for “privet pulls” to yank out seedlings before they could get a good start. So why am I in such a twit about it today? No real reason except that I apparently have a neighbor who didn’t get the memo. As a result, I haven’t walked out into the garden once this spring and summer without finding another little privet sprig that has popped up since yesterday. What is the message? Next time you are tempted to plant some privet, think again and go for a Florida hobblebush Agarista populifolia instead. It's prettier, and it's native.
Also known as Leucothoe, Agarista populifolia in bloom
Photo courtesy: Joseph LaForest,
University of Georgia,