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Consider the Privet for Bonsai

Reprinted, with permission, from "The Bonsai Bulletin", Bonsai Society of Greater New York.

A member of the Olive family, the Ligustrum is definitely a plant for warmer climates. Some species are semi-deciduous or even evergreen in the south. Although some species are hardier than other - L. amurense, an oriental variety for example - most are killed to the ground by subzero weather. In spring Privet sports spikes and panicles of white flowers. In autumn, fruit in the shape of blue-black to black clusters, except the yellow-berried xanthocarpum variety of L. vulgare, are borne in great profusion. Since Ligustrum sinensis is commonly called 'Privet' this term will be used throughout.

Although Privet is used extensively as hedge material, it is seldom used in bonsai. Yet whoever has worked with privet knows the rewards of an exceptionally versatile, adaptable, and grateful plant material. Its extensive use as hedge, ornamental, and topiary material is witness to that fact. Taking kindly to drastic clipping and trimming, it responds with a profuse growth of shoots when cut back severely.

A vigorous grower with good clean foliage, Privet does not have many enemies. A fungus may kill the tips of twigs. Then, spray with fungicide, cut off and destroy infected wood and, when new growth appears, spray again to protect it. Whitefly may choose to dwell in Privet, but Diazinon quickly takes care of that. Scales (Japanese scale, oyster-shell scale, olive scale) and whitefly can be controlled by dormant spraying with miscible oil. Eventually mites can be curbed by a sulfur spray or by specific miticides like Kelthane.

Where bonsai is concerned, Privet is a sturdy, predictable plant and should be listed along with azalea, pyracanth a, and juniper as a good starting plant for beginners. Privet breaks back readily when severely pruned. I think, only azaleas break more eagerly, although azaleas break along the trunk, whereas Privet has a tendency to break more heavily at or just below the pruning site. This fact must be remembered by bonsai'ists, for while Privet can be easily propagated by seed, cuttings (leafed cuttings seem to do best), layering, and grafting, it is much easier to obtain a decent sized trunk from a hedgerow or a nursery, cut it down, and let it sprout out. Privet trunks have to be made to taper since in hedgerows they grow up to 4,5m and tend to be almost cylindrical. Several trunks often grow close to the base, so selecting one and eliminating the others achieves a tapered effect right above the roots.

Privet is a very dependable material, with opposite leaves. When a branch is cut, dormant buds, usually alternately on both sides and on top and bottom of that branch, develop into twiglets that can be trained as secondary branches or new lateral apexes. Since Privet is a vigorous grower, a branch can be well developed and shaped in little more than a season. The only caution is not to leave the plant without observation for too long because of its vigorous growth habit.

Privet has excellent bonsai roots, that is, strong surface roots that radiate fairly evenly from the trunk. Their taproots are usually not prominent. When cut at a slant facing down, the roots put out several rootlets that thicken fast. As with any plant in training, Privet ought to be transplanted into large containers to promote recovery and growth. Privet roots and even trunks, when they rub together, fuse to look a little like maples.

Privet may grow leaves as large as 5-6 cm, but the larger the leaves, or the photosynthesizing surface, the faster wounds heal, so there is no drawback in this. Quite the contrary. Once the tree is sufficiently along its way to a bonsai, leaf reduction can begin in the usual manner; repot the tree into a small container, give water sparingly, and systematically remove all the large leaves. Very soon they are replaced by twiglets with smaller leaves. If this process is repeated often enough, small leaves can be obtained within one growing season.

Several years ago I saved my first Privet from bulldozers and started it on bonsai training. It had suckered low on the trunk, a peculiarity that is easily exploited by bonsai'ists. I cut the main trunk off and the sucker became the new terminal. The plant thus instantaneously has a rapid taper. The only mistake I made was to plant it into a bonsai pot right away. The plant survived easily, but had too little soil to re-establish itself with any degree of speed. The Privet was replanted in a 51 nursery bucket and developed a better first branch than the original one; that, being placed wrongly in relation to the rootage, was eliminated. A trunk was dug up and planted in a container with a Styrofoam cooler bottom. The front was determined according to the root system, and at first the plant looked like a half-buried broom with its handle lopped off at 60cm off the ground. In August (February) of that year, one new shoot, 15cm long and growing parallel to the trunk, was chosen to become the apex. The trunk was carved to taper and allowed to develop rather freely. During the second, or summer, growth period the trainee was planted in a much larger wooden box so it could grow faster. It was then shaped according to the Lingnan Grow and Clip method.
Some years ago, a certain area had to be cleared for construction. All kinds of plant material grew there, including Privet. I picked two multi-trunks, bulldozed two days before, which had been lying in the sun virtually bare rooted. The long trunks were sawn off, and the plants were root-pruned and planted in the garden without too much hope. In due time, however, buds developed, then branches. The most promising of these were allowed to develop freely for one year. Root pruning with a shovel took place in the fall. Training began the following spring with the plant still in the soil.

The very predictable breaking habits observed in Privets encouraged me to start two more, this time in the ground. The training progressed so satisfactorily, they were soon ready for pots.

In all these experiments I have noted that Privet will grow in most types of soil, but do best when well watered. Any all-purpose fertiliser will do. The best times for transplanting are in spring and autumn, the former giving the plant the longest possible growing season. Although Privet is semi deciduous, it has little or no autumn colour. If the plant is old enough to bear flowers, trim those back immediately after they fade, since fruits exhaust the plant too much. Because of its shade tolerance (some grow wild in the woods), Privet might work as indoor bonsai, but no testing has yet been done in this respect. The only styles I have attempted so far are the informal upright and the clump style. There is no indication, however, that any of the other styles would be less suitable for this plant.

The healing power of Privet is just short of amazing. (Crepe myrtle is the only material I have seen heal over as rapidly as Privet.) A stub about 5-7cm above the closest branchlet developed a callus in less than four months: For the sake of experimentation, I left it on and observed it rather than pruning it away as I would do normally. Because of its dependability, versatility, easy breaking, good leaf reduction, and rootage, Privet is an excellent material for bonsai. Since it has not been used much yet, more bonsai'ists should experiment with it and report their findings.

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Random Bonsai Tip

When a tree has reversed taper or a narrowed 'waistline' above the nebari, you could do an airlayering just above the narrow section; or you could damage the cambium layer by either hammering gently with a mallet or by piercing the bark right into the cambium with a sharp object eg. scissors or an awl. You could also make deep incisions along the grain of the bark, where the healing process will cause scarring which would then thicken the trunk.