Looking beyond the privet hedge

Privet killed in an Australian rainforest where it is an invasive species. Chatswood West, NSW, Australia. Photo: Peter Woodard

Privet killed in NSW rainforest where it is an invasive species. Photo: Peter Woodard

A concerned supporter on the NSW South Coast recently sent us this email exchange after seeing privet hedges featured at The Foxglove Gardens, an extensive private garden and function centre at Tilba Tilba.

We visited your gardens recently, I hadn’t been there for about 10 years so it was nice to have a look again. I was however alarmed to see extensive plantings of small leafed privet as a hedging plant. This is a terribly invasive weed in this area, and there are many attractive and non weedy alternatives such as blueberry ash, silver screen pittosphorum or even photinias which are less invasive. I hope you will consider removing them while it is still easy, and replacing with a more appropriate choice.

The Foxglove Gardens responded to our supporter’s email:

You are quite right the privet can be very invasive, but your concern is ungrounded. If the seeds are never allowed to form the privet is fine. Please check out Paul Bangays work. He is a well known Landscape architect and has used this plant in a number of his gardens. We do have a Photinia hedge in the garden as well as other hedges. We chose the small leaf privet as a hedge because, as Paul says, it is a fast grower. The photinia on the other hand is quite slow.

Lucky it is our garden and we can choose exactly what we want. We have been in the landscape industry for over 20 years now and do have some knowledge along the lines of weeds and invasive plants. We have rather a large problem with Madira vine along with countless of other invasive weeds that did not materialise here over night. We work here 24/7 and will get to all problems as priority dictates. Once again thank you for your visit.

Narrow-leaf and broad-leaf privet (Ligustrum sinenses and Ligustrum lucidum) can be legally sold in NSW plant nurseries while in 57 local government areas, privet must be actively controlled on private property. In Bega Council, where Foxglove Gardens is sited, there are no controls on the sale, planting and control of privet. Privet infests many NSW South Coast river systems, being a common garden escapee.

Let us know

We’d like to hear your thoughts about the risk posed by privet hedges in gardens. Should privet be allowed to be sold in plant nurseries?

Make a comment below

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7 Responses to “Looking beyond the privet hedge”

  1. A no from me to privet being sold in plant nurseries.

  2. I agree with other comments here that there should be restriction on sale of species that are recognised as serious environmental weeds, such as privet. Privet is already classified as regionally prohibited in parts of NSW, and I’m really surprised that it is not banned from sale completely. I’m part of a bushcare group looking after a patch of wet sclerophyll forest with an emerging rainforest understorey and we spend a good part of our time dealing with privets large and small. Just one tree left to do its thing on an uncared-for property is enough to cause huge problems as birds spread the numerous seeds far and wide.

    There are some good native alternatives to privet (and Photinia for that matter), such as hop-bush (Dondonaea) and orange thorn (Pittosporum multiflorum), and it’s a shame that these are not used more.

  3. Dr Steve Douglas 29 May, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    Decisions of what species to grow in gardens and on farms shouldn’t be largely a matter for private choice in much the same way that choosing whether to be intoxicated, and if so, how severely, isn’t a legally permitted, socially responsible choice for drivers. Noxious weeds legislation already restricts the sale and management of some plants, but is too driven by narrowly-perceived economic concerns further compromised by politics. Historically, it has been about agricultural interests, not ecological risk. It is also largely reactive, not proactive and precautionary. Controls should be based on ecological and social/economic risk associated with invasively or other harm (e.g. allergenic, harm to wildlife {direct and indirect}), and should consider the best available advice on how climate change may affect invasivity (in general, woody weeds are favoured). The proposed ‘white list’ model of listing plants that are scientifically accepted to be of little or no risk of causing harm is a great way to go. For the horticulturally-inclined who want a large pallet of plants from which to choose, it provides a safe way to select species that suit your aesthetic and other purposes. Such a list clearly needs to apply to all plants irrespective of whether they are Australian natives or not, as some nationally native species are serious weeds when planted outside their natural habitat e.g. Acacias saligna, baileyana, podalyriifolia, and Sollya heterophylla. It is possible to have rational controls on plant availability and management, without unduly impeding horticultural creativity and the maintenance of ‘cultural heritage’ gardens where invasive plants may warrant substitution under the Burra Charter protocol. Sure, hedges that use known invasive species such as privets, cherry laurel, hawthorn, and barberry, can be managed by pruning to prevent fruiting, but this only works if management is diligent and continuous. You’d hardly expect the owner of such manicured gardens to remove those hedges when they sell the property, so there’s no guarantee future owners or managers will contain the threat. Far smarter to choose other options that need less work and have no risks. There are numerous native and exotic hedge-friendly species that are neither weedy; poisonous to people, pets, wildlife and livestock; nor allergenic.

    There are far too many examples available for where peoples’ ‘right to chose’ has led and is sadly still leading to often devastating ecological AND agricultural harm. Such harms are economically substantial and were they addressed fully, would consume vast amounts of public capital and labour. So in my view, social responsibility extends to your gardening choices. Will you choose plants solely based on your notion of their aesthetics and other appeal, or will you choose to consider the harm they may cause to your human and non-human neighbours and future generations? Most folks can’t be expected to be fully informed about such choices – it is a big ask – so it is up to government to act in the public interest by specifying and regulating a safe list of plants, and requiring the removal or other suppression of invasive species. You don’t need to be a ‘greenie’ to understand that weeds are an issue beyond ecological ethics. There is a social and economic dimension that even a hard-nosed economic rationalist can appreciate. Socially responsible gardening, done well, will also be ecologically responsible.

  4. I don’t think any invasive species should be allowed for sale in nurseries. There are plenty of species that pose no risk so there really is no problem in finding alternatives.

  5. As Dr Farrow says above, you cannot guarantee that at some time in the future the well cared for privet hedge of today will not be allowed to grow into a berry producing monster tree. I’m sure very few people originally planted privet with the intention of it being other than a neat hedge. However the existence of so much unkempt privet is a fact and landscapers and gardeners need to recognise the long term problems. The same attitude is seen with the planting of many weed nightmares from hawthorn to agapanthus. Fine while they are cared for, but no one takes long-term responsibility for removing them if there is a change of owner or usage. In my area, the Wingecarribee shire, as people age, keeping their hedge under control is often the first gardening task to go.
    Another modern example is the Cypress Leilandii which is a brilliant hedge plant, but again, it grows so aggressively that unless it is trimmed every few months it becomes a giant tree that is very expensive to remove. In this way it is often allowed to become a massive wall, shading large areas, affecting local habitats and destroying vistas. As it is an infertile hybrid there is little interest in controlling this menace.
    Controls need to be put in place on the sale of these plants

    • Couldn’t agree more Lyndal,

      I live in Hill Top, I have land for wildlife, am in the local bushcare group and

      participate in the coucil Indian Myna trapping programe. Privet is by far the

      worst of the woody Bush/tree invasive weeds in this area. When in flower

      we hunt them down by their smell. They should be totally banned Australia

      wide there is no such thing as a safe planting. I am also a landscape

      gardener and am appalled that onyone in the trade would use this plant

      when there are multiple natives that are far more suitable ( low

      maintenance,flower colours and smell, bird attracting ).

  6. Dr Roger Farrow 28 May, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    Besides its environmental impact privet causes highly allergic reactions in many people because of its airborne pollen. Its sap also causes allergic reactions.

    I don’t see how anyone can guarantee that their privet will never set fruit that is highly sought after by birds such as satin bower birds that disperse the seed far and wide. Unfortunately there are too many ancient privet hedges and shrubs in private and public/council gardens as well as ferals in the bush to totally control fruit production. But we can start by stopping the nursery trade.

    The broad-leaved privet that grows much larger is also highly invasive and infests vacant blocks in places like Molong (NSW) but councils make little effort in controlling it.