A Gardening Journal

The Best Season Ever: Variegated Ibolian Privet

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Talk about colorful! The leaves of 'Quackin' Happy Moondrops' privet are bordered with an exceptionally wide band of pale yellow.

 

And long-lasting!  This is how bright the foliage was in late October, after a full Summer of exposure. The enduring foliage was a remarkable contrast to the quicker-to-fade Fall display of the surrounding perennials and shrubs.  If only I'd planted the privet and the shrub with purple leaves in the foreground, Physocarpus opulifolius 'Summer Wine', closer together. What a telling combination they make.

 

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Is this form of Ligustrum x ibolium a welcome beacon of constancy, as so many of the other plants in this part of the garden retreat in the face of Winter? Or is it a nagging reminder of how wonderful the surrounding plants looked back in Spring and Summer?

 

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Only now, in early January, are the leaves beginning to fade. By February, this shrub's stems will be bare, bringing the plant in harmony—if that's the word—with the long-dormant plants that surround it.

 

Here's how to grow this exceptionally showy ornamental privet:

 

Latin Name

Ligustrum x ibolium 'Quackin' Happy Moondrops'

Common Name

Variegated ibolian privet

Family

Oleaceae, the Olive family.

What kind of plant is it?

Semi-evergreen shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 4b - 7.

Habit

Multi-stemmed and as wide as tall. With exposure all around, a mature shrub is a shimmering globe of foliage, full to the ground.

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

Eight to ten feet high and wide.

Texture

Feathery and graceful when growing free-range, thanks to the long wands of new growth. Ligustrum can also be pruned to architectural precision, which regularly removes new growth and stimulates branching from the remaining stems. The textural result is contrastingly solid.

Grown for

the foliage. The margin of bright yellow around the leaves is several times as wide as that of Ligustrum x ibolium 'Variegatum'. 'Quackin' Happy Moondrops' is the shrub to plant when you want a variegated shrub with prominence.

 

its toughness. As a rule, all forms of privet thrive with neglect. They are not of interest to deer, either.

Flowering season

Late Spring / early Summer in Rhode Island: Mid- to late-June. The flowers are formed on second-year growth, which by mid-June is largely hidden by first-year growth. They are attractive and profuse, but are of secondary interest compared to the foliage.

Color combinations

The white flowers and bright-yellow foliage combine with almost anything, from burgundy, blue, and pink to yellow, orange, and red.

Plant partners

The foliage of 'Quackin' Happy Moondrops' is so long-lasting—from Spring through early Winter—that the shrub could sustain interest amid plantings with a diversity of more ephemeral charms. On the other hand, if "more ephemeral" really means that the surroundings just look messy as this plant and then that one slides over the hill, this Ligustrum might just draw unwanted attention to an area best overlooked.  

 

It's a better strategy to pair 'Quackin' Happy Moondrops' more often than not with plants that have a similarly long season. (Judging from my own usage in the pictures above, in a vast bed of shrubs and perennials that do not have notably sustained interest, this is a case of: Do as I say, not as I do.) The simplest solution is to plant in a large enough area of a low groundcover that the shrub has the all-around exposure that will enable it to mature to its impressively large and spherical majesty. Backing with a hedge or informal mass of dark evergreens would complete the picture. Choose groundcovers and "backers" with foliage size that's much larger or smaller than that of this Ligustrum. Pachysandra or big-root geranium for the groundcover, any a conifer (yew or juniper, say) for the "backer."

 

The contrast with the deep purple maple-like foliage of Physocarpus opulifolius 'Summer Wine' would be dramatic, especially if the Physocarpus is pruned as I recommend here. The leaves of ninebark are showy from Spring through hard frost, almost as long a season as the foliage of the Ligustrum.  

 

If you're not concerned that there would be too great a contrast between the exciting but ephemeral seasonality of most deciduous or herbacous species and the month-after-month constancy of 'Quackin' Happy Moondrops', then the possibilities are much larger. My own "Quackin" is surrounded by giant Joe Pye weed, Eupatorium fistulosum; pink-flowered summersweet, Clethra alnifolia 'Ruby Spice'; pink rose-of-sharon, Althea syriacus 'Aphrodite'; giant meadowsweet, Filipendula camtschatica; and blue-leaved rose, Rosa glauca. Each of these has notable seasonal peaks (of sheer size, let alone flowers or foliage), all of which are enhanced by association with the Ligustrum. Given that this garden's peak is late Summer to frost, I'm able to dodge my own challenge, above, of a much longer display. In addition, the whole bed is backed by a young yew hedge; someday it will be the height needed—eight to ten feet—to provide, at last, the year-round discipline and constancy needed for 'Quackin' Happy Moondrops' to be appreciated in the season-long context that really does it justice.

Where to use it in your garden

To my eye, 'Quackin' Happy Moondrops' is too bright to use as anything other than an accent.  Only if your garden were exceptionally eccentric in having way too much dark hedging—of purple beech, say—would it be advisable to plant this privet as a hedge.    

Culture

Privets are notably adaptable, establishing in almost any soil and self-seeding even into cracks in pavement. The best coloring will be in full sun; foliage that receives too much shade can lose its variegation entirely.

How to handle it

Plant in Spring or Fall; you're unlikely to be able to find 'Quackin' Happy Moondrops' in any other than small sizes, so take care to water young plants until they are established.

 

If your goal is a full-sized and free-range specimen, you need to do little more than keep volunteer vines from colonizing. As long as the shrubs are given broad exposure—see "Partner plants," above—they grow thickly enough to function as their own groundcover. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

It's often the case that any privet will need pruning. The shrubs tend to grow quickly, and most have an upright vase shape that becomes less and less vase-like and more and more sprawling-and-overgrown the longer it is permitted to grow. 'Quackin' Happy Moondrops' is unusual in its to-the-ground fullness. Deciduous privets grow so quickly that they are poor choices for pruning whose goal is a smooth surface; choose slower-growing species such as species of yew or box. Pruning whose goal is overall reduction of size, not architectural finish, couldn't be easier.  Cut any over-large branches back, or even to the ground, any time the shrub is out of leaf. Because variegated privet forms are cutting-grown, not grafted, shoots from the base of the shrub come true; don't hesitate to remove major branches right to the ground to give new shoots more room and additional sun. 

 

The goal of my garden is to be able to showcase the maximum number of different plants, so I don't have the room to let any privet grow free-range for long. The shrub is well back in an unusually deep and broad bed. To give it necessary height (ultimate six to eight feet) but with a minimal foot-print, I'll train my 'Quackin' Happy Moondrops' to an informal pollard, both by cutting last year's stems back by a couple of feet in late Winter, and selecting only one main branch to grow into the shrub's trunk. If you have more room, you can allow several trunks to develop.

Quirks and special cases

The shrub's persistent foliage is masterful at accumulating early-season snow, and if the snow is wet and the storm is heavy, the shrub can be squashed. Damage seems slight—the branches return to their original orientation as the snow melts—but the look is dispiriting while the snow-fall lasts. Some years, I'm better than others at keeping an old broom by the back door, as well as my highest-top Winter shoes, so I can march out into the garden, even in the midst of the blow, to thwack snow from branches before they begin to sag.

Downsides

In climates warmer than my cold-end-of-Zone-7 one, all forms of Ligustrum have the potential to self-seed with enthusiasm. Worse, the shrub's self-reliant constitution, and its berries' appeal to birds, enables the seeds to sprout almost anywhere. In Zone 6 and colder, L. x ibolium seeds are, apparently, not hardy. I have never seen a volunteer seedling.

Variants

The ubiquitous green hedging, Ligustrum ovalifolium, needs no detailing here. There are many ornamental forms of privet, and always more to come, because the shrubs usually hybridize and mutate readily.  Species that are "committed" evergreens, such as Ligustrum japonicum and L. lucidum, succeed in the warm end of Zone 7 and warmer; they are omnipresent from Virginia south, as well as the entire Pacific coast and (where they receive sufficient water) throughout the Southwest. Their glossy foliage, somewhat similar in shape to that of camellias, can be had in brightly-variegated cultivars. Given the indomitable nature of privets, and their tolerant response to the most eccentric as well as ham-handed pruning, these shrubs are found everywhere from fast-food parking lots to great estates. Although L. japonicum 'Davidson Hardy' isn't thought of as one of the better-looking forms, it's on my wish-list because the possibility of any additional broadleaved evergreen is always of interest north of Baltimore; this form is rated as Zone 6.

 

Hardier forms of ornamental privet are also more readily deciduous, although the foliage usually persists through Fall and even into Winter before finally releasing. The new leaves of L. x vicaryi are butter yellow. The shrub self-seeds readily, and, being a hybrid, doesn't come true; it's difficult not to have a larger planting infiltrated by all-green volunteers. I'm particularly fond of forms of L. sinense, which is a self-seeding nightmare farther south. 'Swift Creek' is somewhat more compact than 'Variegatum', and with a broader gray/green-and-cream border. The dark green leaves of 'Wimbei' (also known as 'Wimbish') are much smaller than usual—a quarter inch long instead of an inch or two—and are also arrayed more densely than usual along the branches. Mature shrubs maintain an open branching habit, with each limb sleeved in the tiny foliage that looks more like that of box than privet.

 

The foliage of Ligustrum quihoui is so narrow it seems like that of rosemary. Unusually for privets, its large panicles of small white flowers are born at the tips of first-year growth, so are well displayed and extremely showy.

Availability

On-line and at the originating nursery in northeast Connecticut, Quackin' Grass.

Propagation

Cuttings root easily; seeds do not come true.

Native habitat

Ligustrum x ibolium is a hybrid of L. ovalifolium and L. obtusifolium, both of which are native to Japan, and was developed in Connecticut about 1910. 'Quackin' Happy Moondrops' was a branch sport of 'Variegatum', and was discovered in the gardens at Quackin' Grass.

 
 
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