Playing with privet, or how the privet played with us.

Max’s nature journal sketch.

Playing around with the Ligustrum lucidum this afternoon and trying to learn more about this plant for our nature journals brought us to a soil-shattering discovery.

Ligustrum lucidum (broadleaf privet) is easily confused with Ligustrum sinense (small-leaf privet), so I wanted to make sure we had the right classification. L. lucidum usually has leaves with 4-13 cm long and 3-5 cm wide whereas L. sinense mostly has leaves 2-5 cm long and 1.5-2.5cm wide. Our leaves measured 4.5 cm long and 1.9 cm wide.

The lightbulb above my head reveals that what we have growing in our yard is actually a small-leaf privet. A-ha! This explains why when Meghan read the description of a pointy tip, it just didn’t seem to quite fit our little leaves. L. sinese leaves are almost rounded, as opposed to the point-tipped L. lucidum. Off to make corrections in our nature notebooks.

Max was curious about whether this would be considered a shrub or a tree. Apparently, the world of dendrology (Greek for “tree study”) beckoned. True dendrologists, those dendro-lovers with special degrees, study tree identification, silvical characteristics, ranges, taxonomy, morphology and ecology. According to this field of study, you can distinguish a tree from a shrub by the following characteristics:

TREES AND SHRUBS

  • perennial plant
  • capable of diameter growth due to vascular cambium

TREES

  • single dominant woody stem (trunk)
  • height usually more than 14.7 feet

SHRUBS

  • multi-stemmed
  • height usually less than 14.7 feet

The University of Florida team describes L. sinese as an “evergreen tree” while Floridata calls it an “evergreen shrub or small tree”, which seems to leave us hanging in limbo. Shrub or tree? We will call the Arboretum and find out in the morning since the web seems to be divided on this question.

In determining whether its leaves are simple or compound, this printable Key to the Common Trees of Alabama created by our County Extension was an excellent resource. I’ll confess, however, that we had a pretty hard time and benefited greatly from Meghan’s experience with Envirothon in coming to the conclusion that privet leaves are simple leaves in an opposite pattern. Max made a pretty convincing (or, at least, passionate) case for pinnately-compounded leaves.

On a side note, Micah seemed slightly peeved to not be involved in the nature journaling, so I think I’ll give her a notebook tomorrow and her first nature journal “assignment”- a little leaf rubbing and classification from the imagination.

My nature journal entry.

Ripe privet berries with salt were used in the Scottish Highlands as a traditional source for natural green dyes. You can see Creative By Nature’s experiment with privet berry dye. The Chinese have used privet berries medicinally for many years- there is even a children’s story about how the privet came to be. Unfortunately, privet poses an ongoing threat to our forestland ecosystems- we can observe this even in our own backyard, where the privet just seems to keep returning and thriving despite our attempts to chop it down or trim it back.

It’s been another lovely day of learning how much I have to learn, especially about our local friend, Ligustrum sinese. If you need a little background assistance in botany and ecology and plan to stay up late tonight reading so you can share your child’s current interests, here are a few printable gems: