Ligustrum lucidum (Chinese Glossy Privet)
With most trees, having a beautiful rounded head is a function of age. Even fast growing Eucalyptus take 25 years, Oaks take 100 years and Phillyrea take 50 years. This does it almost immediately. If you catch a glimpse of one from a distance – even if it’s only 10 years old – it’ll look like a beautiful piece of topiary. A great rounded dome. The reason is something to do with its light sensitivity; all the leaves need light so badly, they’ll compete for the light more aggressively than most trees. In the shade (in light woodland, for example), it has nice big glossy leaves and great vigour but no shape. To do its shape thing, it needs masses of space and light. As a result of this extreme response to light, all the leaves form a kind of crust on the outside. Stand beneath a Ligustrum lucidum and it’s empty – all the leaves are way up at the top and at the edges. It’ll grow on any soil (particularly happy on chalk) and obviously will take considerable exposure from the wind. We’ve had strangely mixed results from trying it by the sea so probably wouldn’t suggest that. Coastal, yes but seaside, no. Mavis Batey had an amazing tree in her garden at Aldwick Bay near Bognor – just a few yards from the beach. Thick fleshy glossy leaves and full of health. Sometimes the leaves are too thin for a situation like that and get ripped by the wind and salt. Bit of a mystery. This can grow to 15 ft in 10 years and as much across, so the second fastest growing evergreen after Eucalyptus. Ultimate height is only about 30ft. It’s a Privet – related to the Olives – and so a member of a tough family. Covered in white flowers in July and then covered in purply black berries for the rest of the year giving the tree a kind of purple haze. Never thought of that before. Was Jimi Hendrix a bit of a tree fancier on the side?
We propagate these ourselves from seed we collect just before Christmas (before the birds get them) from a row of three on the north side of Clapham common. (Corner of Clapham Common North Side and Marjorie Grove). They only seem to set seed in London with its warmer summers. There’s a lovely little specimen in Brambling road off St Leonard’s road in Horsham (pictured but several years ago) and also in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral near the City Museum. Because we grow them from seed (no other way that we’ve had any success with), we get the usual pros and cons : fast and vigorous but seedling variation so you won’t get the clone effect that’s such a huge benefit of growing from cuttings. Plant high (members of the Olive family particularly dislike having the base of their trunks buried), feed and water lots. They clip well (all Privets clip well) if you want to keep them a particular shape and size.
My interest in trees was fostered by a book that used to be my constant companion – The Collins Field Guide to the trees of Britain and Northern Ireland by Alan Mitchell. He appeared to be on first name terms with virtually every tree in the country and was one of those weirdos who could recount the value of Pi to 975 decimal places. He loved all trees except Purple Beeches (which he detested) but his very favourite tree of all was this one – Ligustrum lucidum. I only met him a few times (he died in 1995) but he knew of an avenue of them in London which he particularly revered. Sadly, I’ve forgotten where (Uxbridge?) and I never had time to visit. *
N.B. When clipping several plants with the same tool, have a bucket containing a 5% bleach solution and swish your blades around for 30 seconds between plants to sterilise them. This will help avoid the chance of cross contamination of disease.
As with all woody plants, plant high, exposing as much of the taper at the base of the trunk as possible. Allowing soil to accumulate round the base of a tree can be fatal. Keep very well watered when first planted.
*Note from S. Turner, customer (2020). Owen Johnson in his book ‘Arboretum’ (successor to A. Mitchell as recorder for TROBI) has a photo of the avenue of Ligustrum lucidum planted in Gloucester Gardens, Cockfosters, at the end of the Piccadilly Line.
Hardiness level Green