Apr 26, 2010

The Sacred and the Profane

Okay. Confession time.  *Ahem*.

I have a privet tree in my yard. Legustrum japonica. No one hates invasive exotics more than I do, but...it's complicated. I didn't know trees or plants at all when we moved into the house, but I quickly recognized this tree as the Bane of My Life.  In summer, the tiny whitish flower petals cover everything in the yard, clog the gutters with fine debris, and make birdbath water-changing a pretty much constant task. Year-round the tree covers the doorstep in leaf-drop, and in winter, there are: The Berries.  (Queue Psycho music.)

I'll get to the berries in a bit.  You're wondering why I don't cut down this tree.  Well, now that I know more about plants and understand the harm done by invasives, the tugging on my conscience is even more compelling than my sweep-weariness, but for one thing, this is not the only privet in town. I know most of the privets on the street are volunteer weeds, some of them possibly the prodigy of my tree, and I sometimes feel like more yards have them than don't. So removal of mine wouldn't change the overall local Privet Menace much. But yes, that's a cop-out, and I don't truly want to be part of the problem.  But the birds!  This is the bird tree of all time. I go outside in spring and there is a din of birdsong--a solid wall of sound--and most of it is located in the privet. I look up in the scaffolding (the only view of this tree that I think is kind of pretty) and see woodpeckers and nuthatches bouncing from branch to branch as well as sapsuckers, juncos, towhees, kinglets, finches, sparrows and others. And in winter armies upon armies of robins and waxwings.  I go back and forth over the idea of getting rid of this tree. If I did, there are still the other trees--mostly birches, also far preceding our ownership of the home--and I see birds in them too. But not close to as many.

Plus, this is a mature tree and a huge feature on the landscape. Removal would result in my shade garden becoming not a shade garden, and us getting to know the neighbors a lot better.  Any replacement would be years away from having the same sort of presence.

Now the berries. They come out in the fall, coloring the whole tree blue-black, and they start raining on everything in December or so. They stain my clothing, and, embarrassingly, the clothing of unsuspecting guests and passersby.  They make the birdbath into purple soup every hour or so. Then the robins and waxwings arrive.  I think of the New Year as Waxwing Season, and welcoming these gorgeous flocks is an inspiring way of welcoming the coming year.

I'm on the lookout for the Waxer Army over Christmas, and then one morning I look out the kitchen window and see that the privet has become a Waxwing Tree, branches drooping with great clusters of birds. Then something spooks the flock and the tree seems to explode as the cloud of birds moves on to some neighbor's privet.   The waxers eat other things--good things like Toyons, as well as Pyracanthus and Juniper--but the knowledgeable lady at my favorite retail store, Wild Birds Unlimited, tells me that their favorite is Legustrum, "hand's down."

In addition to the waxers are lots and lots of robins, feasting on the same berries. All this also makes me refer to the early part of the year as year Purple Poo season. All the yard's pavement, front and back, and all stones, birdbaths, pots, cars--everything--is covered in purple poo from berry-glutted robins and waxwings. When I pour out the grape-colored birdbath water, a dark blue stain remains on the bowl.

Around mid February, Purple Poo season ends and I say farewell to the waxers (the robins stick around but not in as shocking of numbers). I miss them, but then again I don't. Well, I do. But that messy season is icky. And then spring arrives and where there was once only horrible purple poo there is now...seedlings!  Any time I go outside, even just to get the paper, I start pulling a few privet seedlings and get sucked into a vortex. I can lose hours to this task. There is no end to the seedlings. Spring is the worst, but there's never a non-seedling time.

So, such a virulent, vicious non-native invasive standing tall above my yard of native shrubs and perennials, making a mess and creating chores. It's messed up, I know. I feel like I can never put my house on the local native garden tour with this nemesis on the premises.  I suppose I'd have to plead guilty to aiding and abetting it--along with an army of masked bandits.


  1. Maybe you could start a better tree nearby and wait for it to start reaching a halfway decent size before you cut down the privet?

    I was right there with you on sparing the privet until you photographed the seedlings. I think I'd decide to kill anything that forced me to pull that many seedlings.

  2. Hey, if you can still breathe with that tree in your yard, more power to you. My asthma really acted up with the neighbors privet in bloom, and I'm glad I moved.

    I do think starting a second tree now might be a very good idea ;->

  3. Jess, This really captures the dilemma so many of us face in dealing with invasive plants that are already in our gardens. -Jean

  4. Thanks for the comments. That is a very interesting idea about starting a good tree and cutting the evil tree down when the good one reaches a decent size...Has anyone tried this? I'm always wondering if it's incredibly hard to get the old one out without injuring the new one, but I have thought about it because like any California gardener, I'm forever finding live oak seedlings. I hate to pull them out so always wonder if I could keep them and sort of phase out the surrounding trees or shrubs.

    You wouldn't like my neighborhood, Town Mouse. Allergenic privets at every turn. I'm awfully lucky in that I seem to have no pollen allergies whatsoever, either too natives or to nasty plants.

  5. What a dilemma! If you could wiggle your nose and make it appear, what would you rather have in that spot? And do you love gardening enough to enjoy designing a new garden to grow with a new tree? I wonder if your neighbors and others would be interested in taking shovelsful of the shade-loving plants, should you decide to opt for new, so you wouldn't have to dig them up yourself and compost them.

    We lived for some time in one of those "park-like-setting" apartment complexes with clumping birches outside our windows. We enjoyed all the birds you mentioned and more--something new every month of the year. The hummingbirds loved the trees! Great show.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Kathryn. For some reason I've thought quite a bit about what I would transform the privet into via the nose-wiggling method if I could, even though my attempts to do that have failed so far (the neighbors must think I'm weird). Sometimes I think I'd go elderberry or native cherry, but I suspect they would create somewhat of a seedling nightmare of their own. I think I'd just go with the good old coast live oak. It would be beneficial to a large array of wildlife, and its appearance would be stately, and 100% fitting in the environment. Plus, even though it would drop leaf litter just like the privet does, I adore the appearance of oak-leaf covered ground. Like most gardeners, I'm forever pulling up oak seedlings too, because they always come up where they're not going to work--maybe the squirrels can wiggle their noses and turn the privet into an oak...Sigh.

  7. Last weekend I attended a workshop at the Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. They have a large selection of native trees that you might want to consider.
    I'm thinking of replacing my non-native Pepper tree with a Manzanita!