As I walk my dog around the neighborhood, I’m always looking to see what’s going on with the area’s natural (or un-natural) history.
By Bill Lawyer
As I walk my dog around the neighborhood, I’m always looking to see what’s going on with the area’s natural (or un-natural) history. This includes noting what trees are being cut down, what kinds of butterflies are visiting people’s gardens, and what’s happening with the landscaping of new or renovated homes.
A few months back I noticed that someone had planted a row of evergreen shrubs to serve as a privacy screen for a house along a heavily travelled road. The house had recently been renovated. I couldn’t figure out at first what species of plant they were, but then I noticed that one of them still had the nursery tag attached. (So much for being a know-it-all.) And that’s what piqued my curiosity. The label said that the plants were in the Prunus genus, Prunus laurocerasus to be exact.
What surprised me is that I, being a lover of cherries and other fruits in the Prunus family, had never heard of Prunus laurocerasus. Despite the fact that the plant’s literal name means “prune laurel-cherry.”
Well, that brought memories of the days when I was growing up and my friends and I used to prowl the neighborhood in late June, looking for sweet cherries ripe for the picking. Unfortunately, a quick search via Google dashed my hopes for a neighborhood cherry dispenser. They’re edible for birds, but not people.
It turns out that the cherry laurel is a well-known and somewhat notorious plant with a long history of use and abuse by humans. First the good news. Cherry laurel is a widely cultivated ornamental plant, used in gardens and parks in temperate regions worldwide – including Rye. The laurel part of its name comes from the fact that their leaves look very similar to laurel leaves, even though they’re in a totally different family of plants. Being evergreen, the leaves provide color during the drab months of winter.
Horticulturalists report that it is often used for hedges, as a screening plant, and as a massed landscape plant. Most cultivars are tough shrubs that can cope with difficult growing conditions, including shaded and dry conditions. They respond well to pruning. That’s good, because left alone they would grow to up to 50 feet high.
And, many birds have been seen to be eating their berries, which is helpful in encouraging wildlife in urban areas. They produce very pretty blossoms, similar in appearance to black or choke cherry blossoms, in the summer. They ones I encountered started blooming in August and were deemed very attractive by bees. It’s amazing how through natural selection the fruits that help disperse the seeds are edible, but the leaves, twigs, seeds themselves, and branches are not.
On the negative side of cherry laurels, they are not a native plant. They come from that part of the world that is currently rife with political and military turmoil – the region around the Black Sea.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that while not native, they are also not truly invasive. But the most fascinating, and certainly not positive thing about cherry laurels is the highly toxic nature of their leaves, branches, and seeds. Anyone who has ever watched episodes of PBS’s “Masterpiece Mystery” is aware that a very popular way to “bump off” unwanted relatives or business associates is to slip some cyanide, which smells like almonds, into their champagne, tea, or any kind of food, for that matter.
English botanist and author John Robertson devotes many paragraphs to describing the ways that cherry laurel has accidentally or on purpose caused harm or death. He sites a case where an arborist became seriously ill just from chipping up the branches of cherry laurels – the cutting caused the branches to emit toxic fumes.
So, do the plant’s benefits outweigh the possible risks? That’s up for discussion – right in our backyard.