Around 1852, someone decided to import Chinese Privet (Ligustrum lucidum) from China to the United States for use as a small, ornamental tree. Its glossy, dark, evergreen leaves are attractive, and its clusters of small, fragrant, white flowers are loved by bees. Here in Texas, its clusters of dark purple berries provide mid-winter food for a number of birds, and that’s a problem.

The combination of producing lots of berries, each with many seeds, while not having any insect predators has resulted in the Chinese privet growing rampantly through Texas, displacing many native plant species. Whole woods have been turned into privet thickets, supplying minimal food for native insects, which in turn provides limited food for the birds and small animals that ate the now-missing bugs. The whole food chain becomes disrupted. This is a bad thing.

But you can help fight against these invaders, and in doing so, help yourself.

The berries of Ligustrum lucidum have a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This time of year, the berries are collected, dehydrated and then made into teas or tinctures for use against a large number of ailments. The primary organs it helps are the liver, kidneys and eyes.

The simplest way to describe its effects is as a general tonic, supporting and maintaining the proper functioning of these organs, including helping them recover from periods of organ stress. According to TCM, drinking the berry tea will help eyes that are blurry, dry or red; assist the liver in producing the assorted enzymatic “cleaner” compounds it uses to refresh your body; and flushes the kidneys.

Secondary effects include reduction of tinnitus, returning gray hair to its original color and reducing back pain.

Modern science has studied these berries and found them to be potent antibiotics (especially for respiratory infections), anti-tumor agents, antiviral against HIV and hepatitis, and increases the production of white blood cells by the marrow. This last is particularly useful by cancer patients who have lost bone marrow due to chemotherapy.

You shouldn’t eat the berries raw right off the tree as they do contain some minor, stomach-irritating compounds when fresh. Drying the berries removes the toxin. In TCM, the usual dose was 10-15 grams of dried berries steeped in one pint of hot water for 15-30 minutes, berries were strained out, and the tea sipped while still warm. Additional herbs and sweeteners such as honey are usually added.

Learn to identify Chinese privet (Ligustrum lucidum) so in your winter walks you can collect its berries. You’ll be helping yourself and helping Texas. What a great way to start the year.