Chinese privet was brought to the U.S. in the 1800s as a decorative hedge, but it has spread rapidly across the Southeast, now covering more than 1 million acres in Alabama alone. The small, woody hedge has become a major problem here, crowding out native plants in forests, on rights of way and in people’s back yards.
Privet is a successful invasive species because of its ability to outcompete and therefore displace native vegetation. This competitive superiority to native vegetation is connected with the plant’s ability to adapt to different light conditions. For example, in low light environments, privet is able to produce fewer and larger ramets than its competitors. These larger ramets make privet more tree-like, making privet better able to compete for light than its more shrub-like native counterparts. Privet is an ideal invasive species because it reproduces both sexually and asexually. Through sexual reproduction, privet produces seeds that are easily dispersed by wind and animals. These seeds can rapidly colonize disturbed soil such as that perturbed by fires, forest clearings, erosion, or abandoned agricultural land. Privet matures quickly, which allows for a short generation cycle and even greater dispersal. The roots of privet can reproduce asexually through root suckers.
Which makes eradication problematic, because if you don’t kill every last square inch of it, fragments of root will eventually turn into more privet.
Inevitably, it has spread: this privet, and several others like it, have made it halfway across the continent, to eastern Texas and Oklahoma. And none of them are good for insects:
[O]ne study found the abundance and diversity of butterflies increased following privet removal to almost the same abundance as that of a similar forest community, with no history of privet invasion. In a study conducted in Georgia, privet was found to decrease the diversity of native honeybee colonies. Plots removed of privet resulted in four times as many bee species as control plots in which privet was not removed. Traps placed in undisturbed forest plots with no history of privet caught an average of 210 bees from 34 species, while traps placed in privet-infested plots caught an average of 35 bees from only 9 species.
Birds like the little berries, but there’s little nutritional value to them, and the resulting excreta, if it doesn’t land on your car, is likely to produce still more privet.