Now that most of our trees have lost their leaves we notice other plants in the native landscape. Especially in low areas the Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) dominates. Initially planted as an ornamental, this invasive olive relative has taken over many areas as has a related species the European or common privet (Ligustrum vulgare).
Small tightly spaced leaves emerge in pairs and are semi-evergreen to evergreen. Copious white aromatic flowers explode in mid to late spring. From these blooms numerous purplish fruits resembling small olives develop and ripen in the fall. Best growth is on the edges of woody areas. Plants tolerate significant shade, but in these places flowering is less to almost non-existent.
Chinese privet can grow up to 20 feet tall but is usually much shorter. Height isn’t the problem. It spreads like wildfire mostly from seeds dropped by birds. It’s very tolerant of wildfire too, since it prefers wet areas rarely damaged by it.
This dense shrub doesn’t have the reputation as kudzu, but it can dominate the lower layer of its habitat. This alters species composition and chokes out native plants. Privet shades out anything growing beneath it. Thousands of acres have been invaded by Chinese privet in North Carolina.
Young shoots and fruits make decent wildlife food, so its invasiveness is not a total disaster. It can be a major source of winter browse for whitetail deer when many other food sources are scarce. Bees love the blossoms. Honey yields and quality are good according to many apiculturists.
I’m not a fan of exotic species horning in on our native habitats, but if they do we can make the most of it. Chinese privet foliage makes an ideal greening material for floral arrangements. In early June the flowers also make great filler flowers too. Stems with prolific purple fruits can make interesting accents as well.
Bark teas from privet have been used for centuries to treat fever. Fruits have also been used in Asian medications for multiple ailments but beware. These fruits should not be consumed in large quantities as they contain toxins. Young shoots are safe to eat in small quantities, but they are last resort table fare.
Declaring war on them is a possibility, but they are a formidable adversary. Cutting them off or tilling them up is futile. They come back stronger than ever. The entire root must be removed or plants will continue to grow. For large specimens this is impossible.
Herbicide treatment is an option, but other species may be harmed. Weed killers containing glyphosate (Round-up) are effective and don’t persist long in the environment. Care must be taken not to spray non-target plants. This chemical is only effective during times of active growth.
I think the best way to kill large Chinese privet plants is a two-step process of cutting and immediately applying a concentrated glyphosate solution to the stumps. This lessens the possibility of harming other plants. Treatment can be a slow process, but it might be the best option. I’m not a big chemical guy, but often it’s necessary when exotic species take over.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture in northeastern North Carolina.