Swamp Privet

Illustration of swamp privet branch, leaves, flowers, and fruits
Scientific Name
Forestiera acuminata
Oleaceae (olives)

Swamp privet is a straggly shrub or small tree growing in wet to swampy ground. It is quite noticeable in early spring, with the clusters of yellow flowers and bracts appearing along the gray branches before the leaves come out. In this way, it is similar to spicebush.

Leaves are simple, opposite, 2–4½ inches long, 1–2 inches wide, longer than broad to egg-shaped, with a pointed tip, the base narrowly wedge-shaped, margins with few teeth; the leaf blade is smooth, yellowish-green above, paler with occasional hairs on veins beneath; the leaf stalk is slender, ¼–½ inch long, slightly winged by the leaf bases. Leaves turn yellow in autumn.

Twigs are light brown to gray, smooth, slender, warty, with numerous pores; twigs sometimes take root on contact with the mud. The bark of the trunk is dark brown, thin, close, slightly ridged.

Flowers late March–April; these appear before the leaves on the stem of the previous year. Male and female flowers mostly appearing as many-flowered clusters, on separate trees. Male flowers in are in dense yellow to greenish-yellow clusters above yellow bracts (modified leaves); petals are lacking; stamens 4 per flower. Female flowers are in loose clusters ¾–1¼ inches long.

Fruits mature in June; these are purplish drupes, oblong, about 1 inch long, sometimes curved, longer than broad, with a pointed tip. There is a single seed, which is light brown, about ⅝ inch long, one side flatter than the other.

Similar species: Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a stout, smooth, aromatic shrub of damp woods, usually with several stems from the base. The smell of crushed foliage is distinctively spicy. It’s in a different family, with alternate leaves, but it kind of resembles swamp privet when it blooms in yellow clusters on leafless branches in early spring. The leaves lack teeth.

“True” privets, in genus Ligustrum, are not native to Missouri, but they are commonly cultivated as landscaping shrubs and hedges. Also, they tend to escape from cultivation, and at least some of the species are invasive — aggressive invaders that form dense stands, degrading natural habitats and outcompeting native plants. Unlike swamp privet, the leaves of Ligustrum privets are entire (not toothed), evergreen or semi-evergreen, and the flowers have true petals that are white and joined together in a trumpet shape, with 4 lobes. They bloom May–June or July, later than swamp privet.

Other Common Names
Eastern Swamp Privet

Height: to about 30 feet.

Where To Find

Scattered in the eastern portion of Missouri, mostly in the Bootheel lowlands and counties bordering the Mississippi River north to Pike County. There is also a disjunct range in southwest Missouri. Overall U.S. range: Kansas to Texas, east to Kentucky, South Carolina, and Florida. It is especially common in the Mississippi Valley as far north as Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana.

Occurs in swamps, low wet woods, alluvial and rocky borders of streams, ponds, sloughs, and bayous. Swamp privet often forms small colonies due to its ability to sprout from the roots.

Native Missouri deciduous shrub or small tree.

The genus name, Forestiera, honors the French physician and botanist Charles Le Forestier. The species name, acuminata, refers to the pointed leaves. The name “privet” is of unknown origin; it was first used in print in 1542.

In 1922, people were occasionally cultivating this species, and the great Missouri botanist Julian Steyermark encouraged people to plant it more extensively due to its early blooming. Apparently, it has not gained much in popularity.

The wood of swamp privet purportedly is close grained, hard, and suitable for use in wood-turning projects.

The early-blooming flowers are an important nectar source for bees and other insects as they emerge from winter dormancy.

The fruit is consumed by a variety of birds and is considered a good wild duck food.

Globally, there are about 15 species in genus Forestiera, and the group is native to the New World, including North and Central America and the Caribbean Islands. This is the only species that occurs in natural habitats in Missouri.

The genus Forestiera is in the olive family; other members of the olive family that you might be familiar with are the ashes, lilacs, forsythia, “true” privets (Ligustrum spp.), and, of course, true olive.

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Similar Species
About Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines in Missouri
There are no sharp dividing lines between trees, shrubs, and woody vines, or even between woody and nonwoody plants. “Wood” is a type of tissue made of cellulose and lignin that many plants develop as they mature — whether they are “woody” or not. Trees are woody plants over 13 feet tall with a single trunk. Shrubs are less than 13 feet tall, with multiple stems. Vines require support or else sprawl over the ground.