Garden or Japanese privet - the great British hedging plant


Garden or Japanese privet - the great British hedging plant

The most common hedging plant in Britain, the privet is sometimes mocked as a symbol of surburbia and conformity. However, privet's success is due to its sheer usefulness - evergreen, healthy, adaptable, fast growing and easy to trim.

There is a privet plant that is native to Britain, but the privet used all over suburban Britain is Ligustrum ovalifolium - known as Japanese or Garden privet. It was introduced in 1885 from Japan and is generally considered a much better hedge plant than the native privet as it is fully evergreen.

The Great British Hedge is thought to have its origins in the Bronze Age, and perhaps even in the earlier Neolithic period. Hedges were then used to manage cattle, keeping them separate from crops. Management of hedges for agriculture continued under various invading cultures: first the Romans, then the Saxons. The Old English word haga, meaning hedge, is found in legal documents pertaining to land ownership.

The British urban hedge as we know it first flourished between the wars. Suburban semi detached houses needed something between and around gardens to mark property. The disappearance of railings to be melted down for the war effort also left a void to be filled by the hedge. Almost immediately, the association between hedges and conformity arose as the new lower middle classes took pride in their modest gardens and set to with the shears.

In George Orwell’s novel Coming Up for Air, George “Fatty” Bowling looks out one sour morning over a poky back lawn enclosed by privet and feels trapped. In the Harry Potter books, the beastly Dursleys live on Privet Drive, their address shorthand for the small-mindedness of suburbia.

If left sufficiently unclipped, privet has mall white fragrant flowers in pointed clusters in midsummer which attract a wide range of nectar-seeking insects. The leaves provide food for the privet hawk moth caterpillar.

Round black berry fruits are borne in autumn. These are poisonous to humans but attractive to birds.

Small white fragrant flowers in pointed clusters appear between June and July, which are highly attractive to bees.

The privet is very tolerant of different soils and aspects and also copes well with pollution - hence its popularity in inner city areas.

Further reading

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