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Pretty, Awful Privet

- Steve Bender
Steve Bender

Hold your breath and kill the South’s worst weed.

People in the burbs like their privacy. That’s why they put up fences. When they can’t afford fences, they plant hedges. And that’s how the South’s worst weed now plagues millions of acres in Southern states from Maryland to Florida to Texas.

The villain is a large, evergreen shrub or small tree called Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense). It’s worse than kudzu, in Grumpy’s always correct opinion. Yes, I said that. Worse than kudzu. That’s because kudzu needs sun to grow. Chinese privet, on the other hand, grows just about anywhere. In sun. In shade. In wet soil. In dry soil. In the city. In the country. On the surface of Pluto.

It entered the South from its native Asia as an ornamental plant in 1852. Nurseries in towns like Birmingham, Atlanta, and Jackson often ignored its true appellation and sold it simply as “hedge.” (A fellow I once did a story on named Dr. Dirt calls it “privy hedge,” because he always saw it growing next to the privy. I think it’s better thrown into a privy than planted next to it.) Thus, infestations of this botanical nightmare are worse around cities and suburbs than rural areas. For now.

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If no image comes to mind when I write “Chinese privet,” look at the photo above. You’ve seen it. Just. About. Everywhere. Its sprays of white flowers, blooming now, are actually quite pretty. You’ve also smelled it. That sweet odor that seems to permeate the neighborhood at the moment? It comes from Chinese privet blossoms.

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Something else comes from those blossoms. Pollen. Many people are highly allergic. Later on, the flowers give rise to countless small, bluish-black fruits containing seeds. Birds eat the fruits and poop out the seeds all over. Search your yard today and likely as not, you’ll find some privet seedlings. Let them be and they’ll grow into monsters 20 feet tall and wide, choking out native plants around them. In the woods and on roadsides, they form solid thickets. Hardly anything else grows.

Believe it or not, it’s still legal in the South to plant Chinese privet! I saw some for sale at a local garden I will not name just last week. Shame.

You do not need Chinese privet in your garden. We do not need Chinese privet in this country. That is why I urge you to kill it wherever you find it. The way to do this is to cut off the trunks an inch or so above the soil during the growing season and then immediately paint the remaining cut surfaces with Roundup or Brush Killer. (Note to environmental crazies – don’t even bother to reproach me about this use of Roundup. I won’t respond.) Follow label directions carefully. The herbicide will be taken down to the roots and kill them.

Good. No mercy granted to the South’s worst weed.

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