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Gardening 101: Cherry Laurel

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Gardening 101: Cherry Laurel

May 2, 2018

Cherry Laurel, Prunus laurocerasus: Common Laurel

Cherry laurel is a handsome evergreen shrub that will tolerate shade and produces dainty white sweet-smelling flowers in spring. It is fast-growing and lures birds with its cherry-like red fruits, which turn black in maturity. Certainly this plant can be an attractive and useful addition to the landscape, but before you bring one home from the nursery, consider its less endearing characteristics. Remember the trusting small girl in the folk tale Little Red Riding Hood who meets and is eaten by a wolf disguised as her ailing grandmother? The gardener would be wise to be skeptical of the cherry laurel’s seemingly benign appearance and behavior.

Read on for everything you need to know about this rather hardy shrub, Prunus laurocerasus.

Cherry laurel has white flowering spikes in spring. Photograph by Sebastian Rittau via Flickr.
Above: Cherry laurel has white flowering spikes in spring. Photograph by Sebastian Rittau via Flickr.

One thing to know about Prunus laurocerasus (which emits the pleasing fragrance of almonds when its leaves are crushed), is that it contains hydrogen cyanide, a poison. If ingested in large amounts, hydrogen cyanide can deplete the nervous system of oxygen and, in rare cases, even cause death.  According to the website The Poison Garden entomologists once used crushed cherry laurel leaves to kill insect specimens without causing visible damage. People have reported ill effects from inhaling the fumes emitted by chipped branches pruned from the plant. Unwitting chefs have apparently sickened diners by confusing cherry laurel leaves with the culinary seasoning bay leaves, which are from a totally different plant, Laurus nobilis.

At gardener Silas Mountier&#8
Above: At gardener Silas Mountier’s home, “imposing hornbeam uprights create tall drama above the shorn arcs of boxwood and cherry laurel hedges, on either side of an undeviating bluestone path,” writes contributor Marie Viljoen. See more at Garden Visit: At Home with Silas Mountsier in New Jersey. Photograph by Marie Viljoen.

Aside from its toxicity, the other potentially undesirable trait of cherry laurel, which is native to southwest Asia and southeast Europe, is a tendency for invasive growth. This is particularly true in the Pacific Northwest where the damp climate suits this easily spread shrub. Cherry laurel moves into forests, parks, and other natural areas to produce dense growth that can shade out native plants.

Prunus laurocerasus by Leonora Enking via Flickr.
Above: Prunus laurocerasus by Leonora Enking via Flickr.

If you are prepared to keep this shrub under control and prevent pets and people from eating it (perhaps by planting it away from high traffic areas in the garden), then feel free to add Prunus laurocerasus to your garden where its talent for vigorous expansion, tolerance of shade, and distinctive appearance can solve all sorts of landscaping dilemmas.

Cheat Sheet

  • Approximately 40 diverse cultivars provide plenty of choices for many uses including hedges and screens as well as bushy ground covers.
  • Cherry laurel is a salt- and pollution-tolerant shrub.
  • Butterflies, bees, and birds are attracted to this plant.
  • Prunus laurocerasus is spread by suckering from the root system and by seeds which are frequently widely dispersed by birds who eat the fruit.
Cherry laurel, blooming in Berlin. Photograph by Sebastian Rittau via Flickr.
Above: Cherry laurel, blooming in Berlin. Photograph by Sebastian Rittau via Flickr.

Keep It Alive

  • Plant cherry laurel in moist soil rich in organic matter in USDA zones 5 to 9.
  • Good drainage is essential to the survival of this plant.
  • It tolerates all sorts of light conditions from full sun to partial and even full shade, preferring more sun in cool climates and more shade in warmer areas.
  • Water your cherry laurel enough to keep the soil moist but not soggy.
  • Prune this plant in late spring or early summer after it blooms.
Cherry laurel fruit at Cardiff Reservoirs in the UK. Photograph by Dr. Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr.
Above: Cherry laurel fruit at Cardiff Reservoirs in the UK. Photograph by Dr. Mary Gillham Archive Project via Flickr.

The straight species of Prunus laurocerasus tends to be extremely large (up to 25 feet tall and 30 feet wide) and can easily be given a tree-like form by progressively pruning away the lower branches as the shrub grows taller. Gardeners looking for less massive plants should investigate some of the many cultivars which are widely available.

In a front garden, plants edging a path of paver stones include Berberis thunbergii &#8
Above: In a front garden, plants edging a path of paver stones include Berberis thunbergii ‘Crimson Pygmy’, Spiraea japonica ‘Gold Mound’, Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luykens’, and Spiraea bumalda ‘Limemound’. Photograph by Peter Stevens via Flickr.

Here’s our list of some of the best varieties of cherry laurel.

‘Otto Luyken’ is quite compact, growing three to four feet high with a six-to-eight-foot spread. It makes a manageably sized hedge or screen and is free-flowering, which means it will bloom throughout the growing season (not just for a couple of weeks in the spring).

‘Schipkaensis’ is a spreading shrub growing five to 10 feet tall. It gets its name from the Schipka mountain pass in Bulgaria where it was discovered. Its form is upright and wide with narrow glossy leaves that are smaller than those of the species. It is particularly useful as a fast-growing large hedge.

‘Zabeliana’ or Zabel’s cherry laurel is a low (four feet high with a 12-foot spread) and slow-growing variety useful in small gardens as a ground cover on shady slopes or along a shaded wall or fence. This cultivar is quite cold hardy and has extremely narrow leaves.  If you want to use it as a hedge, experts recommend pruning it twice a year (in early spring and then again in early autumn) to keep its tendency to spread horizontally under control.

Read more design and care tips at Cherry Laurels: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design and get ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for more of our favorite shrubs and hedges with our Shrubs: A Field Guide. To see how mature shrubs might look in your garden, read:

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