If you have ever seen those statues of ancient Romans with a wreath of leaves around their head, you have seen the original ‘laurel’, which is what we today call bay leaves, but which should really be called Bay Laurel. So when you hear of a ‘poet laureate’, it is the wreath on their head that is being described. The name Laurel ended up being given to any tree with slightly leathery, evergreen leaves, so there are lots of shrubs and trees called Laurel of one kind or another. Today, although there are a number of different kinds of Laurel used in gardens, the most important and most widely-used is the Cherry Laurel, which is available in several different varieties, depending on your exact needs, so when you hear the name ‘Laurel’ today that is the plant usually meant, and that is the way we use that name too.
Laurel is a real ‘work-horse’ in the garden and not just some item of history. It is a great evergreen shrub with attractive, glossy leaves, that will grow in sun or moderate shade, and can be used in many different ways; as great plants around the house for structure; as background shrubs in borders; and especially clipped into wonderful, dense and sturdy hedges of all heights – making green backdrops to your garden, trapping the sun and keeping out the wind, and bringing privacy and quiet to your private space. Laurel has been popular for hundreds of years as a garden plant, especially for hedges, and it has been used for that long because it genuinely is a great evergreen shrub like no other.
Using Laurel on your property
So you are looking for a solid hedge around your garden – that will be dense and leafy right to the ground and never give you problems – right? Well the answer is a Laurel hedge, which will do just that. Growing equally well in sun or shade, with beautiful rich green, glossy leaves, Laurel is a fast-growing shrub that will quickly fill in and before you can turn around it will be doing its job for you. It will protect your yard from wind, and make it warmer in spring, so that your flowers will start growing a little sooner, and you can enjoy the warm sunshine sooner too. It will be dense and solid right to the ground, and thick enough to keep most animals from pushing through. It will transform the ugliness of an old wire or wooden fence into a gorgeous wall of green you will be proud of.
Plus, it will not be bothered by pests or diseases, and once established it will be very drought-resistant and need nothing more than an annual feeding and some clipping. Depending on the variety you choose, your Laurel hedge can be anything from 3 to 15 feet tall, so this is truly the hedging plant for every location. It will look uniformly thick and beautiful even if your hedge has sunny and shady areas – unlike other plants that will either scorch in the sun or grow weakly in the shade. If your hedge gets neglected, and you have to do some hard cutting, some plants will not re-sprout from leafless branches, which can mean taking the whole thing down and starting again! A Laurel hedge won’t do that to you – cut back into thick, bare branches and within a few weeks they will re-sprout and you will have a new, shorter plant than before.
If you need an attractive shrub for a smaller garden, to mix with other plants in the foundation planting around your house, look no further than the Otto Luyken Cherry Laurel, which makes a beautiful, spreading shrub that stays small enough to really not need much if any trimming. That way it will also give you a profusion of perfumed white flowers, which is an added bonus to a beautiful plant.
What is a Laurel Tree like?
As mentioned earlier, there are lots of different ‘Laurels’, but let’s look at the most useful and popular, the Cherry Laurel.
Cherry Laurel – Prunus laurocerasus, is native to Turkey and Iran, but has been grown in European and English gardens for hundreds of years. In the wild form it has large evergreen leaves, up to 6 inches long, that are glossy and rich green in color. They always look healthy and clean all year round, so this is a shrub that always looks great – with no ‘bad days’. The forms we sell for gardens all have smaller leaves that are about 2 to 4 inches long, so they look neater and more compact in the garden and are easier to clip too. It is hardy from zone 6 – that is, it will be happy in winter temperatures down to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, so it will grow across all the country, except for the far north-east and the northern parts of the mid-west. It grows in any kind of soil, and it will grow 2 feet a year, so you will very soon have substantial plants to give structure to your garden beds, or fill in and make a great hedge. For large hedges we recommend the Shipka Cherry Laurel, which has been specially selected to have smaller leaves, but still grow strongly, making a perfect large hedge. For a small hedge, 3 to 4 feet tall, we suggest you plant the Otto Luyken Cherry Laurel, a dwarf form perfect for small hedges in smaller gardens.
Cherry Laurel can also be grown as a shrub without clipping, if you have room, and the Otto Luyken Cherry Laurel only grows to about 4, or eventually 6 feet, so it will fit well even in a small garden. Every spring unclipped plants produce a profusion of upright flower spikes, like candles about 5 inches long. These are covered in white flowers that release a beautiful perfume, so this is a great, easy-care garden plant. The flowers will give way to black fruit, but these are not really ‘cherries’ at all, so don’t try to eat them. Birds however love them, so you will attract local wildlife to your garden, which is always a good thing.
Other kinds of Laurels:
Portuguese Laurel – Prunus lusitanica, is like a slower-growing version of Cherry Laurel that grows wild in southern Europe. It is closely related to Cherry Laurel with the same kinds of flowers and fruit, and similar evergreen leaves that are only a little glossy. It grows in the same conditions, but prefers more water. Because it is slower growing it is sometimes used for small hedges.
Bay Laurel – Laurus nobilis, is the plant that has the bay leaves used in the kitchen. It is sometimes seen growing in pots clipped into different shapes as decoration outside houses, especially in England. The leaves are evergreen, dark green and they have a crinkly edge. The flowers are small and white.
California Laurel – Umbellularia californica, is a large native tree that is found in California and can grow up to 100 feet tall. It has leaves similar to Bay Laurel, and they even have a similar flavor. The large nuts can be roasted and eaten. The wood is very hard and fine-grained, so it is sometimes used to make guitars.
Mountain Laurel – Kalmia latifolia, is a beautiful American native shrub growing from Maine to Florida, that grows in acid soil and is sometimes grown with azaleas and camellias. The large clusters of flower are pink or white.
Japanese Laurel – Aucuba japonica, is a shrub from China that will grow well in dry shade. It comes in several forms and sizes, all with unique leaves that are green with golden splashes on them, bringing brightness into shady corners.
Camphor Laurel – Cinnamomum camphora, is a Chinese tree that grows up to 100 feet tall. It is sometimes seen in large gardens in Florida or California. The leaves smell of camphor when crushed.
Planting and Initial Care
Cherry Laurel, which is the most useful and widely grown of all the Laurels, will grow in almost any kind of soil. When young it will grow quickest if there is some organic material in the soil, so add some compost, manure or peat-moss when you are planting. For the first couple of growing seasons, while you are establishing your plants or growing your hedge, give it plenty of water, but once it is established it is very drought-resistant and will grow with no care at all.
For hedges it is best to dig a trench, enrich the soil you remove from it, and then line up the plants in the trench and put back the soil. For a small hedge plant the Otto Luyken Cherry Laurel 2 to 3 feet apart. For a larger hedge, plant the Shipka Cherry Laurel 4 to 5 feet apart. For a really dense barrier you can also plant a double row, 3 feet between the rows and 6 to 7 feet between the plants. If you are planting against a wall or a fence, put the row 2 to 3 feet inside your garden, to allow room for the plants to grow.
During the early years, until your plants are a good size and your hedge is fully grown, use some evergreen hedge fertilizer in spring and early summer to get the healthiest, maximum growth that you need. Once your plants are well-grown they will not need any more fertilizer unless you see the leaves looking weak and yellow.
Start trimming your Laurel plants early in their life. Cut the tips off the branches regularly as this will give you thick, dense plants that will look great in your garden as specimens or as a hedge. Some people try to grow a hedge quickly by letting the plants just grow tall and starting to trim when they are the full height. This is a mistake as you will not easily be able to grow a thick, dense hedge that way. Instead, trim lightly two to four times a year. Once your hedge is closer to fully formed, which will happen in just a few years, you can begin to trim it more closely, always keeping the top narrower than the bottom, so that foliage will keep growing right to the ground. The best time for a hard trim is in late winter, before new growth begins, because that way you will soon have a fresh covering of perfect leaves all over, giving your hedge a very attractive look.
If you are growing your Laurel as a shrub, especially if you are using the Otto Luyken Cherry Laurel, after a few light trimmings when young, you will not need to trim it at all, and that will also give you the maximum flower display, so that your plant is hidden by a beautiful showing of white candles.
Laurel Trees are among the very best evergreen shrubs you can grow; sure to always look attractive, with their glossy and fresh green leaves. They make an ideal plant for the low-maintenance garden, filling in spaces, especially in shady locations, and needing no particular care at all. Used as specimen plants, or as perfect hedges, these plants are widely used for a good reason – they do the perfect job and leave you time to spend on your other plants to bring your garden to perfection.