In Washington, DC it is de rigor for visitors to swoon over the famous Yoshino Cherries with their magnificent scent and flowers. Oh how they remind us of the chiffon dresses popular in the 1960’s. But on this trip, I was distracted by a plant I’d never seen before. Its leaves, a perfect shade of dark green, appear to stand smartly at attention guarding Jefferson’s Memorial while making a hedged path that frames the monument. The hedge is perfectly formal, yet surprisingly natural. And it perfectly complements the magnificent cherries.
Speaking of perfection, I found out the Landscape Designer’s name. It is Arthur Edwin Bye and he was my new hero, but the green-leafed beauty remained a mystery. Some 12 years after this journey to Washington, I am working at a nursery in Connecticut surrounded by trucks and workmen. It is early May and the men start to unload various shrubs from Hines Nursery. And there they were again; still green, still dazzling and standing at attention. B&B in all their glory with hundreds of fluffy white flowers. The plant looked fabulous to me and I couldn’t wait to bring one home.
Now my love can be properly identified: Prunus Lauroserasus, and this particular cultivar is ”Otto Luyken”. From that day forward I never stopped planting “Cherry Laurels’ in my clients’ gardens even though (it seems it was a lot colder back then) I was told they were not really “Winter Hardy” in Fairfield County.
Fast forward to Jen’s first class meeting at Bryant Park. It’s Fashion Week in the City and, wait, isn’t that Lindsey Lohan walking right through he Park!
Speaking of celebs, our first plant of the day is a “Cherry Laurel” all perky and bright resting underneath the canopy of a Dogwood. I toned down my excitement in front of my classmates but I could hardly control myself. There were some “Shot Holes “ in the leaves, which I’ll get to later, but they were nearly perfect specimens in a really low-light environment.
The great thing about “Laurels” besides the great leaves, great color and great habit is they can be planted in the sun or the shade, at least that’s been my experience. I now have 31 plants on my property and have planted dozens on others so I think I know what I’m talking about. In the US, the shrub is referred to as a “Cherry Laurel”, “Skip Laurel” or sometimes “English Laurel.” But in England, not surprisingly, they refer to it as Cherry Laurels.
Prunus laurocerasus , Rosaceae family.
“Otto Luykens” (Cherry Laurel) is named after the director of the “Hesse Tree Nurseries” (Baumschulen Hesse) in Weener (a town in Lower Saxony, Germany close to the Netherlands. His nursery bred the cherry laurel variety beginning in 1940 and introduced it to the trade in 1953. Royal Horticultural Society Award of Merit in 1968, Award of Garden Merit in 1984.
“Schipkaensis” (Skip Laurel) Selected in 1889 from Schipka Pass at 4,000’ near Kasanlik, Bulgaria by Spath of Berlin. Royal Horticultural Society Award of Merit in 1959.
They are indigenous to South Eastern Europe and Asia Minor. For more than 400 years they have been grown as hedges and ornamental garden shrubs in Europe.
“Otto Luyken “ has a compact habit and matures to 4’ high by 6’ wide but can be easily maintained and pruned to 3’ high by 4’ wide. The 4” long and 1” wide leaves are a very shiny dark green (holly –like in color). The plants are covered with fuzzy-feathery billowy fragrant creamy white flowers that appear heaviest during May on upright 2” to 5” spikes (racemes). A “raceme” is an inflorescence with stalked flowers, which radiate off a single unbranched stem. The individual flowers are cup shaped with 5 petals and are almost a half-inch across. The fruits are 1/2 in (1.3 cm) cherry like drupes (stone fruits) that ripen to dark purple. (Floridata) Some people like the fragrance and others find it offensive. It is a matter of opinion whether or not the flowers have a powerful fragrance or a rather offensive odor. Many people feel it smells sweetly of honey and Dirr calls it “sickeningly fragrant” To be honest; I’ve never even noticed a smell one way or another.
“Schipkaensis” is the more upright cultivar and has the same basic characteristics as the “Otto Luyken”. This shrub can reach 10’ high and 4’ to 5’ wide. I have seen it planted as an individual plant but it ‘s much more suitable as a hedge for screening. It’s a really nice alternative to arborvitae in many landscapes. Both cultivars are fast growing. The USDA hardiness zones vary from source to source but for the most part it averages between Zones 5-8, Skip is said to be the hardiest variety and is said to grow as far north as Chicago. I have experienced some winter sunburn (leaves turn brown) particularly when I have planted them on a north/west side of a house and an unprotected area. If I have any doubts about the location I usually spray them with an anti-desiccant (wilt-pruf) for the first year or two and then after they are established I leave them alone. I have even planted them near the coast and they seem to tolerate the salt sprays and all the wind that goes along with living by the sea.
Laurels are susceptible to something called” Shot-hole” (as if someone shot a hole at the leaf). It is usually caused by the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae pv. mors-prunorum, which also causes bacterial canker. The disease is usually worst at the garden centers and nurseries due to the watering practices-overheard sprinklers. Once they are planted they usually do much better. Most of the sources say to avoid overhead irrigation and make sure you remove and distroy the fallen leaves. If you want to be really smart about it buy clean plants to begin with. I have seen plants covered with Shot hole after a long wet summer and it usually goes away, especially after a dry, cold winter. Identical symptoms can be caused by a minor fungal pathogen known as Stigmina carpophila. In general, they can deal with difficult growing conditions. They need to have moisture but do develop problems when they are in a wet environment (Dirr says they are prone to root rot in places with inadequate drainage) and I have found them to be drought tolerant once they are established in the garden.
It appears that the deer stay away for good reason. …….Water distilled from the leaves is used as almond flavoring and in perfumery. All parts of the plant contain hydrogen cyanide, a poison that gives almonds their characteristic flavor. This toxin is found mainly in the leaves and seed and is readily detected by its bitter taste. It is usually present in too small a quantity to do any harm but any very bitter seed or fruit should not be eaten. In small quantities it can stimulate respiration and improve digestion. I read that Cherry Laurel water has been used in Paris fraudulently to imitate the cordial, Kirsch. I bet that gets your heart racing
Unfortunately, there are those people who don’t share my opinion of the Laurel.
They refer to this wonderful shrub as “unsexy” and say it doesn’t scream, “buy me” at the nursery but I just shrug and comfort myself in the thought that if it was good enough for a guy with the stature of AE Bye it’s good enough for me.