The Japanese ligustrum, also called Japanese privet, is a large shrub or tree that is usually seen at 6-12 ft (1.8-3.7 m) in height but is capable of reaching 20 ft (6.1 m) or more. The attractive leaves are evergreen, opposite, and somewhat pear-shaped with a sharp terminal point. They have 6 to 8 pairs of veins that may be somewhat sunken on the back. In spring, white flowers are borne on large terminal clusters (panicles) 5-8 in (12-20 cm) long. The flowers produce a perfume that is not particularly pleasant as well as quantities of pollen that many people find bothersome. The blossoms are followed by green berries that ripen to dull black in winter and tend to persist on the plant for most of the year. The older and larger the tree, the more open its form becomes and looks attractive limbed up to create a bonsai-esque effect.
Japanese privet can be easily shaped into hedges and other shapes with regular close trimming.
Several variegated selections of Japanese ligustrum are available and often offered at discount garden centers. 'Rotundifolium' is a dwarf selection that is slower growing and usually stays below 5 ft (1.5 m) in height. It has more rounded leaves and is often used to create low hedges.
Ligustrum japonicum, the Japanese privet is a native of Japan and eastern Asia as the species name indicates. This shrub is now widely naturalized in mild winter areas.
Extremely tolerant of a wide variety of soil conditions, ligustrum is a strong, sturdy plant requiring little care other than regular pruning to maintain desired shape and size. It will grow in sun or part shade. In shade and when planted too close or in conditions that limit air circulation, whitefly and sooty mold can become problematical. These are controlled with a soap spray. One of the most common mistakes is planting immature ligustrums and other large shrubs too close together. Space these at least 5 ft (1.5 m) apart and they will grow together to form a solid hedge.
Light: Plant in sun to part shade.
Moisture: Once established, wet to dry, but not soggy.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 10
Propagation: Mature plants propagate themselves prolifically from seed. Cuttings are easily rooted. Named selections are propagated commercially by grafting onto seedling rootstock.
Japanese ligustrum flowers
Japanese ligustrum flower clusters appear in mid-Spring and are prettier to look at than to smell - they cause many to sneeze and sniffle as well. Click to download a large version of this image (800x600).
unripe privet berries
The unripe berries are attractive and are sometimes used in wreaths and arrangements. Click to download a large version of this image (800x600).
This versatile shrub can be used as a solid hedge and for creating tall screens. Japanese ligustrum is often trained into small multi-stemmed specimen trees by removing the lower limbs and all but 3-7 stems. Due to its rapid growth rate this shrub is a favorite for creating novelty topiary specimens with one, two, or three "balls" or shaped into cones and pyramids. For a formal look, twin topiaries are often used on either side of a front entrance.
Japanese privet is an attractive and tough plant that requires little care. It is extremely fast growing and can add green "bulk" to new landscapes quickly. Ligustrums provide a source of food for birds when other berries or food sources are meager. This unfortunately disperses the plant helping it to naturalize over a wide area.
A close relative the glossy ligustrum (L. lucidum) is similar in appearance but larger in stature and very invasive. The common privet (L. vulgare) is a hardier deciduous or semi-evergreen relative native to the Old World. This is the plant of "privet hedge" fame but it may be invasive in some areas outside of its native range.
This shrub can be invasive and readily reseeds. If you do have plants, remove flowers and fruit to limit spread.