Ligustrum & Privet

Ligustrum
Glossy Privet

Note, Glossy Privet and Chinese Privet are listed as Category I invasive species in Florida.

March 2007 - Most Ligustrums in Florida (to be specific, Glossy Privets or Ligustrum lucidum) always seem to be used as standards and as part of a formal architectural statement. They are planted in a prominent place in front of the house and tightly clipped in a rounded shape.

While the Western version of formal gardens is viewed by many as the ultimate achievement in form, balance and proportion, they make me uncomfortable. It is a delusion to believe that Man can control Nature and the Ligustrum is one of those plants that is a perfect proof of that fateful misconception.

If the gardener has infinite time or money (the ability to pay someone else for their time), then the Ligustrum will always have a clean, well balanced form that complements the garden. But at some point, the frailties of the human condition will win out and time or money will be in short supply. The tree will be momentarily neglected and before you know it .....

Ligustrum

Ligustrums put forth an amazing growth spurt once or twice a year. Even in slow months, they can grow six inches.

One day the tree is only five or six feet tall and you can easily get your clippers around all of tree. The next day it is nine feet tall and many of the branches are out of reach. If you cut the tree back severely, it will likely recover, but wait too long and you get something like the tree on the right. The bottom half of the Ligustrum is within reach and can be easily clipped. The top half has become an ugly jumble of branches and leaves. You can only address this confusing mess by either risking life and limb on a ladder, by meticulously cutting each branch with an ungainly tree pruner or by paying someone else to sweat and strain.

What was an easy five minute exercise in trimming the small Ligustrum, has now become an hour or two of exhausting work. Which leads to...

Ligustrum

If it takes that much effort to carefully sculpt a large Ligustrum, then why not let it go and become a free-form tree?

The problem is - zero effort leads to a questionable level of enjoyment. In no time the Ligustrum can grow to twenty feet in height with a thirty foot spread that chokes out all available light. What was once a neatly clipped little shrub planted close to the house, becomes an ungainly monster.

You can try, in desperation, to cut back the tree, but a 20' branch is beyond most pruners. If you cut the larger branches that you can still reach, you may wind up with an ugly, scarred tree that will take years to recover. Or you can just ignore the Ligustrum.

So, if you let the tree continue to grow, it will reach 35-40' in height in a matter of a few years and you will be left wondering whatever happened to that cute little ball in front of your house!

If the Ligustrum was originally planted in an open, sunny area with the intension of letting the tree grow wild, then the Ligustrum will be happy, but I'm not so sure about the owner. Do be aware that a happy Ligustrum lucidum generates an abundance of malodorous flowers followed by a large messy fruit crop. Also, "Glossy privet (L. lucidum) and Chinese privet (L. sinense) are reported by the Florida Exotic Pest Council to be invasive and could seed themselves and reproduce in nearby landscapes, woodlands, or natural plant communities on conservation lands." UF

However, the Ligustrum is typically planted near the house with the assumption it will always be under control. If the tree is left unattended, you can wind up with the tree at right. Too long neglected (admittedly by yours truly) and left to grow under a high and competing canopy of Oaks, the tree has grown old and frail with gaping holes and little architectural value.

I just can't win. If I spend my time and energy continuously clipping the Ligustrum, I get the uncomfortable feeling that I am overly controlling. If I neglect my Ligustrums for even an instant, I become a grumbling, sweaty mess as I spend hours getting the trees back under control. If I give up on my Ligustrums, then I am left with racking guilt that I have created a miserable shell of a tree.

So I will never plant another Ligustrum.

Update (July 2007) - OK. I lied. Things change. What can I say? I planted another Ligustrum (actually two) at our new house. We were concerned about privacy from two of our windows and Ligustrum were the best (i.e. easiest and cheapest) solution. Let's see how they turn out and whether I get lazy and I let them run amuck.

Update (March, 2010) Sadly, we had to sell the house a year later and I never saw the new ligustrums grow to maturity. But I will bet significant dollars that the current owners have been in denial just like I was and now have two small monsters on their hands.

Never turn your back on a ligustrum.

ligustrum