privet defined in 1913 yearprivet - Privet (Ligustrum vulgare);
privet - "The Moon is lady of this," said the old herbalist - astrologers, and truly there is nothing hot or vivid about the Privet; it is primness personified, with its neat, green leaves set two by two upon its stems, and its equally neat, trim pyramids of little flowers that top the branches in such orderly fashion. Primness and trimness rule, too, in all its details; each leaf is a simple, narrow oval, with smooth, green surface, one main rib, and a plain, straight edge, and each flower is a regular cross, and, of course, white, for gayness of garb would seem as much out of place on the Privet as it would on some precise, elderly spinster addicted to black silk and white cap.
Even when the leaves first begin to appear, there is no folding or rolling even of the most regular description in the buds; each is born a very minute object, and just grows bigger and bigger to full size. One could imagine the horror of the Privet shrub - if it could express itself - at such untidy folding as that in the oak buds, or such crumpling as that in the poppy buds. Then, again, the Privet always wears its dress of seemly green, and this, in spite of the fact, that it is not, strictly speaking, an evergreen, since spring by spring the leaves renew themselves. Yet its branches are never revealed in their bare nakedness, for winter cannot tear their vesture from them, and only when the young leaves are ready to take their place do the old leaves loose their hold and fall. Aurora Leigh speaks of her little chamber being "as green as any Privet hedge a bird might choose to build in."
It was this quality of continuous greenness, as well as its formality and its complaisance "to make hedges or arbours in gardens... wherein it is so apt that no other can be like unto it, to bee cut, lead and drawne into what form one will, either of beasts, birds, or men, armed or otherwise," that made it so acceptable in the gardens of our forefathers. Parkinson in the seventeenth century says that "the use of this plant is so much and so frequent throughout all this land... that I could not forget it" - that is, forget to place it among the plants in his "Earthly Paradise." Again, it was first favourite in those charming formal gardens of Queen Elizabeth's day when the walks were set between green hedges, to make which "every man taketh what liketh him best, as either Privet alone, or sweet Bryar and Whitethorn interlaced together"; and favourite, too, in days still earlier to fashion the "privy playing places" of the Middle Ages, such "a pleasaunt herber (Arbour) well ywrought," as, for instance, Chaucer found:
"And shapen was this herber, roofed all,
As is a prety parlour; and also
The hegge (Hedge) as thick as is a castle wall,
That who that list withoute to stond or go,
Though he would all day prien to and fro,
He shoulde not see if there were any wighte
Within or no…"
As Parkinson suggests, the Privet takes it place with the yew, the box, and the holly as a topiary plant for the fashioning of those marvellous beasts without which no gentleman's garden was at one time complete, but upon which Alexander Pope poured such satire and so helped to kill the usage. We remember his "St. George in box; his arm scarce long enough, but will be in a condition to stick the dragon by next April. A green dragon of the same with a tail of ground ivy for the present." It was not quite of the same rank, perhaps, as the box, and certainly not as the yew for this purpose, but it surpassed them in the rapidity of its growth, and hence the quickness with which it could be fashioned.
But not only have the leaves served in mass for screens and decorations, they were found of use individually by the old herbalists, who turned so much to account that we to-day think valueless. Thus a Dutchman in the time of King Henry VIII. was convinced that the leaves "made into powder are good to be strowed uppon hoale ulcers and naughtie festering," and, further, that "Whatsoever is burned or scalded with fire may be healed with the brothe of Privet leaves." In Belgium the clippings of the shrub are used in tanneries, as there is considerable astringency in the leaf tissues. But the white flower pyramids have their points also as they stud the greenness in June and July days. A tiny green calyx cup supports the short tube of four united petals, which above turn back to form a precise cross. Above the petal-cross a pair of pale stamens peep. It is true that sometimes the corolla may be five-lobed and the stamens three, just as the white cap of the aforementioned spinster may show irregularities, but, as is obvious from the comparison, it is an infrequent spectacle. An ovary appears below the petals and a short, clubbed column rises from it. At first the stamens stretch away from this column to give a chance for cross-fertilisation, later they bend over it to ensure self-fertilisation if necessary. Now, since primness never in any way necessarily spells lack of sweetness, we are not surprised to find that the cream pyramids are very sweet. A fragrance that somehow seems old-fashioned and redolent of the past wafts from them, and in the corolla tube a feast of honey is stored. Under sunshiny skies butterflies, bees, flies and beetles all come as eager visitors for what they can get, while in the dusk one moth is such a persistent visitor that it is named after the shrub the Privet Hawk moth, Sphinx ligustri, a handsome fellow, too, with grey wings and fluffy black and red body.
The flowers persist for some time, then they begin to tinge with brown, and on the slightest movement crowds of the corollas fall to the ground - their tubes now much more readily seen. The ovaries swell and become a brighter, shinier green. Each has two chambers within it, and in each is a seed. Towards autumn they become black, and the dark clusters of fruit are very noticeable. The birds find them pleasant enough, and, indeed, the Germans express a mild oil from them which is used in cooking. A dye, too, which once served for tinting maps and such-like purposes, can be obtained from them.
The apparent primness of the plant has been emphasised here, but it is a remarkable thing that the old name of the plant, "Prim" or "Primprint," had nothing whatever to do with this quality. In the Middle Ages there appears to have been some extraordinary confusion between the names of this plant and that of the primrose, and on the principle that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," there seems to have been an interchange, which, according to Dr. Prior, came about thus: The primrose's Latin name was then Ligustrum, its common name "Prim," or "Primprint," from the French prime printemps, because it came so early in the spring. But on the continent Ligustrum was the Latin name given to the Privet, and in our first English herbal - that of Turner, dated about 1550 - Ligustrum was there retained as the generic name for the Privet. But since "Primprint" had always been its English equivalent that still went with it and was attached to the Privet too. "Primet" was an abbreviation of "Primprint" that had already served for the primrose, and it also was handed on and eventually softened into "Privet." It is rather an involved story altogether. Tusser, writing for gardeners in 1573, speaks of the Privet as "Prim," for among the work to be done in January he says:
"Now set ye may the box and bay,
Haithorne and prim for clothes trim."
The Privet is usually a shrub about six to eight feet high, but sometimes it becomes almost a small tree if it be left alone and untrammelled. It is a member of the Olive family, the Oleaceæ, and its only other close relative native of this country is, strangely enough, the ash, though there is little or no family resemblance to be traced on the surface. To its foreign relatives, the lilacs, now almost naturalised here, there is a considerable likeness, though the Privet clusters are, of course, on a much smaller scale.
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