Invasive Plants

Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense)

Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) is another member of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden “Dirty Dozen” invasive species. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has listed Chinese privet as a high-risk invasive species for all of Virginia, but privet continues to be sold by local nurseries, and homeowners continue to plant it as an ornamental shrub. Chinese privet has escaped cultivation and naturalized in environments ranging from forest understories and stream sides to disturbed environments like roadsides. In forests, it dominates the understory and shades out all herbaceous plants and suppresses the growth of tree seedlings. This article should convince you to not buy and plant this species.

Chinese privet (pictured at right) is a member of the olive family and was intentionally brought from China to the U.S. in 1852 for ornamental uses. It is usually planted as a hedgerow shrub and its cuttings are used in floral arrangements. It can grow up to 30 ft. tall but usually reaches heights between 5 and 12 feet. Chinese privet tolerates diverse soil and light conditions, but thrives in damp areas like stream-sides and bottomlands. Chinese privet reproduces by seed, vegetatively and by root suckers. It blooms in late spring and has small white flowers. The fruit is toxic to humans but are spread by birds which accelerates its takeover of native plant communities.

Preventing and removal of Chinese Privet can be done in several ways. Removing individual plants before they flower (thus eliminating opportunities for sexual reproduction) will slow down the spread. Preventing large-scale invasions is easier when plants are small; therefore, if you see Chinese privet seedlings, take the time to remove them. It could save you hours in the long run!

Because Chinese privet has shallow roots, individual plants with stems less than one inch in diameter can be pulled by hand. All roots must be dug out to prevent them from resprouting. Mowing or cutting back privet may stimulate more growth, so is not recommended as a removal strategy. While mechanical removal is usually the most ecologically sound option, there are situations where chemical control with herbicides is less harmful to the environment than mechanical removal. For example, if Chinese privet has completely taken over a hillside or streambank and removal by hand or with equipment will significantly erode the soil, it may be necessary to use herbicides to prevent sediment damage to streams. If you identify a Chinese privet invasion that requires the use of herbicides, the Virginia DCR recommends applying glyphosate to foliage in late fall, after most native plants have dropped their leaves. As always, please follow all labels and consult with your local Virginia Cooperative Extension for assistance if needed. If you think you have found a patch of Chinese privet and you don’t feel able or qualified to remove the plants, be sure to report it to the Virginia Invasive Species Working Group or to Virginia DCR.

If you are looking for native alternatives to Chinese privet, there are several very good ones. Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) (pictured at left) is a large shrub with white or cream flowers followed by blue-black berries. The flowers are important to several species of native bees, including bumble bees, and the berries attract many birds.

Devil wood (Osmanthus americanus) (pictured at right) can be grown as a small tree, up to 36’ high, but can be pruned into a large shrub. It has glossy, leather-like leaves and very fragrant flowers which attack pollinators of all kinds. The dark fruit is shaped like small olives (it is in the olive family).

Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana) can be used as a hedge shrub and has small white blooms. Its native range does not extend into Virginia, but it can be grown here in the right spot.

For more information, check out Invasive Alien Species of Virginia (PDF) and the USDA National Invasive Species Information Center.