Cherry laurel gets a bum rap in landscaping

April 14, 2011 

Before I was born, way back in 1950, one of my relatives by marriage who wasn’t asked to join the Junior League built the biggest house in town. An intuitive designer, she understood the concept of “reveal, conceal” and planted a cherry laurel hedge by the street. It was carefully pruned to stay about four feet, still thrives as a living fence, and is expecting its first haircut of the season this weekend. When Dr. Michael Dirr says, “withstands heavy pruning,” he ain’t just whistling “Dixie.”

Sadly, many people abhor cherry laurel, Prunus caroliniana, one of our native Prunus species. It flowers prolifically with white racemes with an odor that some find offensive (what do they say about Bradford pears, I wonder?). These flowers mature into black berries that woodpeckers and other birds adore. Like cedar berries, a trip through the stomach of robins renders these seeds fully operational, and volunteer cherry laurels do come up everywhere. In gardening columns that ask for comments, the poor cherry laurel receives more negatives than positives.

It’s a bum rap in my book. Lots of trees and shrubs seed down – pecans, oaks, Chinese elms – and no one carries on about them. And unlike the first two mentioned above, which can only be pulled after a three-inch rain, and then with effort, cherry laurel seedlings are easy to remove. The crushed leaves, which are a glossy green, smell like maraschino cherries. Docents at Swan Lake Iris Gardens in Sumter tell me to leave their “Dr Pepper” plant alone as it is a favorite of children on tours.

In older gardens, cherry laurels often become small trees reaching 30 to 40 feet in height. A new cultivar, “Bright ‘N Tight,” more compact in habit, matures at about 20 feet, but again, with the same tolerance to shearing as the species, it can easily be kept smaller and is used to good effect in Florida’s Magic Kingdom.

When compared to such exotic invasives as elaeagnus, china berry, mimosa, and popcorn tree, cherry laurel’s propensity to volunteer seems less offensive. However, in Australia it has become a tremendous threat to native plants; another example of ex-pats gone wild without the tempering influences of their home environment.

Prunus serotina, black cherry, is cherry laurel’s deciduous native cousin. While less attractive to tidy gardeners, it is equally valuable for wildlife. Its berries are the base of the famous “Cherry Bounce” drink recipe in “Charleston Receipts,” (a 1950 cookbook from the Charleston Junior League; see recipe with this column) but birds eat them as soon as they ripen in my yard so I’m stuck with Vitus or Zea-based libations.

Both these cherries are loaded with hydrocyanic acid, which doesn’t bother birds, but is dangerous to cows and horses. A valuable timber tree in the North, P. serotina trees in our neck of the woods are prone to black knot, which makes a disfiguring, warty growth on trunks. As a favored host of the Easter tent caterpillar, the nests of these larvae further detract from the tree’s visual appeal.

If you take time, however, to examine the trunk of this tree, you will find beauty in its gray, textured bark. I once removed a piece to use as a raffia-tied decoration, and this forgiving tree and its intertwined animal life still flourish in my yard.

Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and is a co-host of “Making It Grow” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/

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