Glossy Privet

During the Harvest House Tour on Saturday, Oct. 24 & Sunday, Oct. 25, several members of the Gay Blades Garden Club spotted something unusual in the backyard of the Mebane House, now the Taylor Law Offices.

“Looking at it from the Mebane House from the upstairs window, it was just really a striking thing to see,” master gardener and member of multiple Mebane garden clubs Linda Nunemaker said of a tree in the backyard of the Mebane House, but “we didn’t know what it was.”

So the garden club members set out on a mission to identify the unusual-looking tree with dark purple berries and multiple hearty trunks, thinking it could be related in some way to the history of the property it is planted on, which was originally owned by Benjamin Franklin Mebane or ‘Dr. Mebane.’

Dr. Mebane was born in 1823. He graduated from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1847 and from University of Pennsylvania’s medical school in 1850.

For his senior thesis at UNC-Chapel Hill, Dr. Mebane explored the effect of climate on health, and, upon graduation of medical school, he founded a company called the Taraxacum Company, in which “he patented a vegetable tonic made from dandelion roots, and it was called the Taraxacum Compound,” Mebane Historical Museum director Traci Davenport said.

Taraxacum is Latin for dandelion.

“[Dr. Mebane] claimed [his tonic] cured and prevented indigestion and dyspepsia,” or an upset digestive system, Davenport said. “He made a ton of money from that compound, sold it far and wide; it was very popular. He did very well for himself.”

Davenport assumes the Taraxacum Compound was made on the property, “because I’ve never found mention that he had an office elsewhere,” she said.

“That was a pretty good size piece of property,” Davenport continued. “He likely had vegetable gardens and may have had herb gardens that he used for that compound.”

Knowing the history of Dr. Mebane, Nunemaker and other garden club members were eager to discover if this unusual tree could have been used for medicinal purposes.

Nunemaker, herself a master gardener, tapped into her area resources, most prominently horticultural technician and master gardener coordinator for North Carolina Cooperative Extension at the Alamance County Center Christine Stecker.

“I couldn’t identify it,” Nunemaker said, so she sent pictures of the tree to Stecker. “She is such an expert, in my opinion,” Nunemaker said of Stecker.

From the photos alone, however, Stecker was unable to identify the tree, and asked Nunemaker a horticultural question: did the leaves turn opposite or alternate?

When Nunemaker brought a specimen of the tree to Stecker, she could tell right away. The leaves turned opposite, and Stecker was able to identify the mystery tree as a glossy privet, or ligustrum lucidum.

A quick Google search of the glossy privet feeds into the idea that this plant could have been used for medicinal purposes by Dr. Mebane, perhaps even for his special compound.

Wikipedia notes the seeds are used in traditional Chinese medicine for just about everything: to nourish the liver and kidney, to cure ringing of the ears, vertigo, premature graying hair, soreness of lower back and knees, dry eyes, and blurred vision. In studies with lab animals, says Wikipedia, the herb extract has been shown to have many medicinal qualities.

Web MD notes the glossy privet is used for the growth and darkening of hair, reducing dark spots on the face, and helping to control rapid heartbeats, achy joints, swelling, tumors, vertigo, common cold, congestion, constipation, deafness, fever, headache, liver disease, and insomnia.

“It is also used to induce sweating, as a tonic,” for improving immune function and reducing cancer treatment side effects, says Web MD.

These sites also state that the ligustrum lucidum is native to China, but has been ‘naturalized’ in the United States. Naturalized means it was planted, most likely for ornamental purposes, and did very well in the area. Birds picked it up and dropped seed elsewhere, and the naturalized plant then grew and thrived on its own.

As for the specific ligustrum lucidum planted at the Mebane House, Nunemaker and Stecker both said it is hard to tell whether it was planted ornamentally, dropped by a bird, or planted for medicinal use by Dr. Mebane himself.

Privets generally have a long history of being planted for ornamental, or landscape, purposes.

“Years ago, a very common hedge plant was a privet, which is ligustrum japonicum,” Stecker said. Both privets are in the same plant family.

According to mountainroseherbs.com, a website that sells the dried privet fruit, the ligustrum lucidum too was used for landscaping, having been “introduced into the U.S. in 1852 for use as an ornamental.”

Since being planted as hedge, privets have “basically become a weed,” Stecker said. “It did well in the U.S. and became invasive,” actually.

Because privets have historically in the United States been planted much more commonly for landscape purposes, Stecker concluded, “It was probably planted as an ornamental [plant] and not a medicinal.”

“It’s out there all by itself. I don’t know if [Dr. Mebane] planted it or a bird planted it, it’s hard to tell,” Nunemaker said.

It is also hard to tell the age of the tree itself. It is quite hearty looking, “If you look at the trunk system on it, there are so many [trunks],” Nunemaker noted.  It’s an “astounding trunk system,” she continued, but there is no way of guessing the exact age of the shrub.  

“Privets are pretty fast growing,” Stecker said.

“It was probably planted as an ornamental, and could have escaped. Could have been planted by birds. Could have been planted on purpose. Could have been planted by Dr. Mebane himself. I don’t know if there’s any way of knowing,” Stecker again concluded.

But, regardless, there is no doubt that the tree is “quite spectacular,” Nunemaker said.  It’s a “really pretty tree.”

“Just stunning.”