Privet: A pretty bush you don’t want to see or smell

Published 12:28 pm Tuesday, May 30, 2023

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Contributing columnist

If you are outside much, you probably will catch a whiff of an almost-overpowering flower smell, and if you investigate, you will likely find a bush loaded with small white flowers. This plant is called privet, an invasive shrub brought in as a landscape plant as early as the late 1700s. It has unfortunately gone Frankenstein and naturalized into the wild, where it is now very common to see along roadsides, woodland edges and fence rows. It is bad news and a serious threat to our mountain farms and forests.

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Privet (Ligustrum) is native to China and Japan, and was brought here as a landscape plant, particularly used as a hedge around gardens and yards because if can tolerate severe pruning and can be shaped anyway you want it. It is a shrub that forms multiple stems that support a dense canopy of small oval leaves. Each mature shrub can produce upwards of 1,000 small white flowers, that in turn produce thousands of small purplish to black berries containing many seeds. The berry is a favored food for several bird species, especially the thrush, which then fly off and drop out the seeds for miles around, allowing the shrub to rapidly expand its population.

Privet has other advantages that allow it to easily outcompete native plants. It can also reproduce through root suckering, making them difficult to kill. They adapt well to varying light conditions, though they don’t do well in deeply shaded, undisturbed forests. But stir up the soil with a new road or timber harvest that allows more light to get in, and privet can seed in and rapidly take over the area. They are especially fond of forest edges, where they get plenty of light but are protected from mowing equipment.

Here’s the scary thing. Forests containing large amounts of privet tend to have fewer trees, less shrub diversity, and decreased density of herbaceous plants. When introduced to an ecosystem, privet, given time, will produce a thick shrub layer under the forest canopy, preventing sunlight from reaching the native plants below, which are gradually driven out. This can negatively impact why we like to visit forests. No wildflowers, reduced wildlife numbers, no clear views through the forest and reduced fall leaf colors. It’s a total downer for a nature nerd like me.

So what to do? State and federal parks are doing what they can to fight off invasive plants on public lands. But land owners, be it a farm or even just a back yard with a grown up fence row, must go to war and kill Privet and other invasive species. You can’t just cut it down, as it will just laugh and sprout up more stems than before. You about have to resort to herbicide use and try to kill out the root system. There are several fairly simple methods of herbicide application that are very target-specific that a weekend warrior can use. My favorite two are stump-cut and hack and squirt. Look these up online and you can figure out what will work best, along with how to ID the plant. State forestry agencies are also a good source of information.

Steve Roark is a volunteer at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.