The Trouble with Ligustrum

Thursday, September 15, 2011
Between my childhood home and the one behind it stood a Japanese ligustrum wonderland. What began as neat shrubs in a row under pine trees quickly became huge canopies as my father pruned out the lower branches to encourage their height. Within a few years, the neighborhood girls had shady space to play under, virtual apartments in the shrubbery. We hung sheets for ‘privacy’, laid quilts, made covert plans, and read every Nancy Drew book we could find on long summer afternoons. Birds nested above us, at least one cat had kittens in our refuge, and bees buzzed endlessly on the fragrant flowers. We did despicable things, too, that mostly involved bees in jars, but even fireflies weren’t safe from our curiosity. But there is no truth to the rumor that younger siblings were tied to sturdy ligustrum trunks until they gave up their allowance! You can plant these beauties almost anywhere except a bog if you can provide water during dry weather in the early years. Once mature, ligustrum is quite drought tolerant and with pruning once or twice annually, it will keep a strong form for years. Most are maintained at 6-10 feet tall, but mine are at least 15 feet tall today. If I were planting today, I might go for ‘Silver Star’ or another variegated ligustrum. They grow just as well and have very interesting leaves. Most Japanese ligustrums are grown as hedges, but the tree form has its fans, and both are easy to establish and maintain. Amend native soils slightly with ground bark or leaf mold to improve drainage and add organic matter to the mix. Dig a hole or till a row a few inches deeper and a foot wider than the containers you’ll be planting. Amend the soil in a wheelbarrow or on a tarp outside the hole. Put a fertilizer tablet at the bottom of the hole with an inch of new soil over it, then plant the tree at the same level or slightly higher than it was growing in the container. Fill in with soil mix, water once very well, and mulch lightly. Ligustrum grows rapidly, and you can encourage it with regular applications of water and fertilizer, or simply maintain its size with less effort. To get new plantings or recently rejuvenated ones growing, water deeply once a week, topdress with compost monthly, and use a slow release shrub formula fertilizer in spring and again in summer. Once plants reach the size you seek, water only in times of drought and fertilize once a year in spring or summer only. If old shrubs have only a few leaves at their top or only on the sides of a hedge, rejuvenate them by cutting the entire plant down to six inches tall in spring, then begin actively fertilizing and watering them to push new growth. But if those old ligustrum are ten feet tall with a healthy head of leaves at their top, consider trimming off the lower branches to create a tree form. The flowers have a heady perfume, and their clusters are very attractive to bees. Like many flowers blamed for common allergies, ligustrum may not be the true culprit. Since so many other forms of wind-blown pollen are in the air at the same time as ligustrum, it’s hard to know what’s tickling your nose. The flowers form on the previous season’s growth, so continuous pruning beginning in spring to maintain a hedgeform can prevent them altogether. Because the scent is strong and often described as cloying, ligustrum does not make a good cut flower, although its thick, waxy, green leaves will last a week in the vase. These shiny, sturdy shrubs/trees are not to be confused with their rogue cousins, littleleaf privet, the terrible invader that I enjoy destroying. More on them another day. In the name of good gardening, there is one ligustrum to avoid, and in fact, to eliminate wherever you find it growing wild. L. sinensis is Chinese privet, a papery-leafed version of the desired species without any of its good qualities. Privet is a menace, spreading too rapidly to control over huge swaths of the southeast and shading out the native species. Note: In case you have a good memory, yes, much of this information was contained in an article written for MS Gardener magazine in 2003.
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