Chinese Privet is an aggressive non-native species still sold in plant nurseries as “Ligustrum.” The dainty evergreen leaves don’t resemble any of the hideous horror creatures of folklore & film. But its practical, no-maintenance resume at the garden center conceals the monstrous destructive power it unleashes on our native woodland & meadow eco-systems.
by Robert Katz-Messenger
It has been hard for me to come to grips with just how invasive privet can be. In our ignorance, my husband and I watched over several years as privet has taken over and surrounded our garden, lined the driveway, overwhelmed our neighboring old house place, dominated the fence rows and roadsides just about all the way to Clinton – 2 miles away. In Clinton, it dominates Highway 65 B, lines many a driveway and takes over any neglected area. My heart sinks when I see how it is gaining on the riverside areas in our city park.
Of course, folks introduced and plant privet for its handy traits: It makes an impenetrable hedge in just a few years, can grow to be a 20’ bush, bears fragrant white flowers in spring and deep blue berries in fall (which are eaten by some birds). Being a non-native, it is resistant to disease, multiplies from both berries (which are handily carried by birds) and roots, stays green through the winter and is virtually indestructible. I, too saw these aspects as desirable, knew nothing about the plant, and did little to prevent its spreading until I became aware of the damage it does to our native forests which I dearly love.
So why is this such bad news? Privet is like starlings in the bird world: it overwhelms and crowds out native species of all types. Because it did not evolve in North America, it has no relationship to the great web of life in our ecosystem, and where it goes, natives suffer. Not just plants and trees, but insects, butterflies, birds, mammals are little helped by its overwhelming presence, persistence and spreading habit. And it is almost impossible to eradicate.
Forest Service wildlife managers and other experts are pessimistic about managing this non native aggressive plant where it is already established. One writer, a bird expert, writes that he has spent 15 years clearing privet from his 12 acres of woods. After all his effort with pry bar, clippers and chain saw, he laments that there will still be privet on his place when he dies. Every root comes back, every seed sprouts and he cannot go anywhere on his property without finding another starter privet here and there. I asked a lawn care friend how he would handle a privet thicket: a bulldozer and 100 percent herbicide was his reply.
I decided to write this article not because I expect a massive undertaking to remove established privet; I cannot handle my own infestation. What sent me off on this article was a story: Out in the beautiful back country of Arkansas where native species still flourish, there was a new homeowner. At the end of his driveway, two well-made raised beds were created. In each bed, the unwitting home owner planted 3 each well grown privet he bought from a garden center. Obviously, as many of us, he has no idea what a bad idea that was. Reticent about telling a neighbor what to do with his land, yet so sorry for the future I imagine for the beautiful area where he lives, I decided to write this article.
We can help in preventing the further wholesale spread of this invader. We can learn to recognize privet and share information on how difficult privet can be for our homes and wildlife. We can remove it where feasible. More importantly, we can refuse to plant it and encourage garden centers and plant stores to cease selling it. We could even ask our landscaping experts and advisers to become aware of how destructive of our native species privet can be. Maybe we could pass a law prohibiting the sale of privet.
Photo (c) Jon Sullivan, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC), https://www.flickr.com/photos/mollivan_jon/17162143821/ via iNaturalist.org