Local gardening: Privets, the fragrant sirens of the South

May 10, 2012 

JAMES H. MILLER @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS DATABASE / JAMES H. MILLER AND KARL V. MILLER. 2005. FOREST PLANTS OF THE SOUTHEAST AND THEIR

A newcomer to the South sent photos of her new favorite plant to Making It Grow!’s Facebook page, extolling the virtues of this marvelously fragrant, evergreen plant covered with small white flowers. In her yard, she found lots of babies of this remarkably productive, shrubby small tree and was transplanting them with care.

Of course, what she had encountered was privet, Ligustrum sinense, and her reaction was similar to that of American gardeners in the 1860s who embraced this remarkably tolerant hedge plant. I first encountered the heady fragrance of privet when my husband and I lived at Historic Pendleton’s house museum, Ashtabula. We drove home one night from classes at Clemson and encountered a yard perfumed with a light, seductive fragrance. Numerous panicles of tiny flowers were the source and they soon turned into bluish fruits devoured by birds.

Sounds like a plant from Horticultural Heaven, doesn’t it? Sadly, the extremely hardy nature of privet combined with its ability to grow in dry or wet, shady or sunny spots, and the tremendous number of seeds it produces has allowed it to take over thousands of acres of woods and swamp lands all across the South.

Privet creates thickets so thick that sunlight can’t penetrate to the ground. Native plants, especially those that are deciduous or herbaceous, don’t get enough light to sustain growth. The animals that depend on those plants for food or shelter are then put at risk. Leaves from upper canopy trees often can’t penetrate the thick mat of branches created by these privet thickets, leaving the soil below without a nurturing cover of organic matter.

Large scale privet removal projects require committed landowners or public organizations which sometimes employ specialized equipment or restricted use chemicals. For a homeowner, you can cut down privet bushes in your yard and paint the stump with a brush and stump treatment product labeled for that purpose. It frequently takes more than one application to kill the plant.

Variegated privet is not exempt from the exotic invasive tag. It does flower, although less prolifically, but easily reverts to the common variety. Many homeowners call complaining about the black leaves on this cultivar, which results from its attraction to white flies; their sugary excretions support sooty mold growth.

On a more cheerful note, my sweet bay magnolia is blooming now. When I come home in the evening, its perfume is far more enticing than that of privet. Looks better tucked behind your ear, too.

Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and is a co-host of “Making It Grow” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/

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