It’s been privet week at my house. Behind my back patio are two of my neighbors’ gardens, separated from my space by a high fence. One neighbor has a gigantic privet tree, probably Ligustrum lucidum, or broad-leaved privet; over the years it has seeded a great many saplings on my side of the fence. These provided a pleasant green screen — until they too became gigantic, so surgery was called for. Slowly, but relentlessly, I chopped them down and up. (I’ve been physically in bad shape for several months, so my anti-privet project was a tribute to my gradually returning powers. Considerable rejoicing.) All that remains are some stumps that will need professional attention.

Things to know about this plant: it’s fast-growing, tough, and appallingly invasive, and its pollen (now being produced in huge amounts) is fabulously allergenic. I have not been a happy gardener.

Here’s what you probably think of under the name privet: a handsome hedge plant that can be shaped by pruning:


From OED3 (June 2007):

Originally: the deciduous or semi-evergreen shrub Ligustrum vulgare (family Oleaceae), native to Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia, having glossy dark green leaves and clusters of small white flowers succeeded by shiny black berries, and formerly cultivated for garden hedges… Later also (freq. with distinguishing word): any of various other shrubs of the genus Ligustrum; esp. the semi-evergreen Japanese species L. ovalifolium, now the kind which is usually used for hedges.

But then there’s Ligustrum lucidum, seen here, close-up, in bloom:


The flowers are strongly scented, which many people find offensive. And then they’re so allergenic, cough wheeze. (But the huge mother tree is not on my property, so I can’t do much about it.)

Now on the etymology. Almost everybody would like privet to have something to do with private — after all, the plants are used for headges — but the OED dashes these etymological hopes:

Etymology: Origin unknown… A connection between the present word and later private adj.1, privy adj. has frequently been suggested, but there is no evidence to support this. Apparently attested early in place names …

In case you were hoping that Ligustrum would be more informative, well no. According to the OED, ligustrum is just another name for ‘privet’:

Etymology:  < Latin ligustrum privet, adopted by Linnæus (Hortus Cliffortianus (1738) 6) and earlier botanists as the name of a genus.

The black privet berries are poisonous to human beings, but not to birds, which spread the plants far and wide through their droppings.

6 Responses to “Privets”

  1. Tané Tachyon Says:

    Oh! I have one of those in my front yard, but didn’t know what it was. Harry Potter fans will be pleased. I use sprigs of the berries in flower arrangements some times.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Horton Copperpot on Google+:

    I’ve been told be several gardeners — I found the story, at one point, in a gardening book — that privet hedges are in some nontransparent way derived from the Russian word “privet”, which is, in essence, an informal, familiar way of saying “hello” (and “goodbye”) I was never convinced of this origin and found no literature of any kind that firmly established the connection. I’d call it a urban legend, but urban legends rarely require knowledge of Russian.

    The pronunciation of the Russian and the English are not especially close, but the transliteration of the Russian looks just like the spelling in English. But the meanings are totally different. This looks like one of those accidental similarities of form that people can seize upon to concoct a presumed etymology.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Richard Jasper on Facebook:

    When I was growing up we had giant ligustrums on either end of our tiny little house on Newton Drive in Pensacola. I actually rather like the smell but I inhaled so much of it during the years I lived there (ages 8-24) that the merest whiff can set off a major sneeze attack.

  4. mwarhol Says:

    My least favorite plant (and that from someone who’s very sensitive to poison ivy). The vulgare, that is, which is common here in the east. There’s some growing in the middle of 17 wooded acres I own, around an old house site (along with other invasives like Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose). There was one growing in my next door neighbor’s yard, out of control, 30 feet tall, that would drop seeds all over my yard. I introduced myself to my new neighbor by saying, “So, how attached are you to that old ugly gangly privet tree?” I ended up taking it down, a little at a time, over the next few days. No more picking privet seedlings out of the bog garden. It does make a fine hedge if it’s properly trimmed, but without immortal robot gardeners to trim it in perpetuity, it’s not worth the mess.

  5. Japanese knotweed | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] plants that are ornamental or useful or both, but occasionally I look at invasives: recently, on privets and tumbleweed, and a bit earlier on monstrously invasive vines —  kudzu and mile-a-minute. […]

  6. Farewell to the trees | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] posted about the silk tree  (Albizia julibrissin) before, and also about the privet trees (Ligustrum) back there, but not about the potato vine, Solanum crispum, a pretty and not very […]

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