A Gardening Journal

Schip Laurel

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Thick, shiny leaves that don't flinch in cold weather or hot, in shade or sun.  More astounding, deer ignore them completely.  Cherry laurel is a remarkable species, indeed. 

 

This is a cultivar discovered at the Schipka mountain pass in Bulgaria—'Schipkaensis'—and most forms of it are distinctly upright.  This "schip" laurel (say "skip") is smaller-leaved and spreads widely.  My biggest is twelve feet across, and five feet tall.

 

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I've shown it instead of some other cultivars I grow because it's located outside my deer fence, and Winter's the prime season for deer to munch on almost any broadleaved evergreen.  They don't even sample cherry laurel.  Not one leaf, not one nibble.

 

Name even one other hardy broadleaved evergreen that deer ignore.  There are only a precious few: box, leucothoe, and pieris.  Cherry laurel is the first among equals in such a small club.

 

 

Here's how to grow this remarkable broadleaved evergreen:


Latin Name

Prunus laurocerasus  'Schipkaensis'

Common Name

Schip Laurel

Family

Rosaceae, the Rose family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen bush.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 8.

Habit

Multi-stemmed.  Typically broadly upright; this form spreads widely.

Rate of Growth

Fast. 

Size in ten years

Twelve to fifteen feet wide and five to six feet tall. 

Texture

Medium; the evergreen foliage is not so dense that the branches are obscured. 

Grown for

its foliage, which is smooth-edged, thick, and lustrous, and doesn't droop in the Winter the way that of large species of rhododendron do.  Although thornless, the foliage is completely deer-proof, making cherry laurel one of the few broadleaved evergreens besides box, pieris, and leucothoe that can be planted in unprotected locations.

 

its vigor:  Cherry laurel can grow a couple of feet a season.

 

its tolerance of both full sun and fairly deep shade.  Although the bushes tend to develop bare knees—see below for how to help—they thrive in shade almost as deep as that tolerated by the all-time champs, Aucuba japonica and Hydrangea quercifolia

 

its amenability:  You can prune cherry laurel ruthlessly or casually or not at all.  The bush thrives regardless.  You can also renew old bushes by chain-sawing them down to stumps; they'll resprout.  See below for help.

Flowering season

Spring.  The short spikes of off-white flowers are noticeable but not exceptional.

Color combinations

Schip laurel goes with everything.

Partner Plants


Small leaves, light-colored leaves, and variegated leaves are all exciting contrasts.  See "How to handle it: Another option—or two?" below for some great combinations.

 

Schip laurel's shade tolerance, size, casually-open habit, dark green foliage, early-Spring flowers, and easy-going nature make it a ready host for a climbing, rambling, or scrambling ornamental.  Especially one that could bring some excitement in Summer or Fall, months after the laurel's flowers have passed.  If the laurels are growing in full sun, why not try a rambling rose or clematis—or is you're gardening Zone 6 and warmer, one of the hardy passion vines?  

Where to use it in your garden

Prunus laurocerasus 'Schipkaensis' is planted most often as a quick and tolerant privacy screen.  The lower third of the bushes tend to become more open, so they benefit from being fronted by plantings that can mature to about four feet.  Schip laurel, then, is not the best choice for stand-alone hedges, where privacy species that can more readily be maintained full to the ground would look better, such as holly, yew, and mid-sized species of bamboo.  See "How to handle it" below for strategies on partner plants as well as pruning schip laurel for maximal fullness.

Culture

Full sun to half or even three-quarters shade.  Almost any soil provided that drainage is good to excellent.  Poor drainage is usually fatal.

How to handle it:  The Basics

Spring planting is usually best, and is required in gardens colder than Zone 7.  Balled-and-burlapped plants establish as well as container-grown.  The root balls of "B&B" plants usually don't cohere well.  Buy such plants only if the burlap is the natural product, not plastic, in which case you won't need to remove the burlap at all.  It will decay in a few months all by itself.  Plant with the burlap still tied, and then untie it and pull the top flaps back to expose the surface of the soil.  Cut the flaps off, and tuck the cut edge of the remaining burlap discretely down into the soil.  B&B plants often need to be staked for their first year.  

 

Cherry laurel grows quickly—almost too quickly.  It takes discipline to plant far enough apart to allow for the mature spread.  The plants will thrive when planted more closely together, which is inevitable when using them for hedges or groundcovers.  But if planting near pathways or lawn, you're just asking for a lifetime of pruning to keep the pathway unobstructed and the grass not shaded-out, which you could have avoided, mostly, by planting the bush a yard or two farther back.

 

Fortunately, cherry laurel is very tolerant of pruning, and will resprout from small limbs as well as directly from the base of the largest branches.  Prune in Spring, before the plant flowers; see "Quirks or Special Cases" below.  

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Plants growing in shade are more open.  Because the bush's natural habit is to grow wider and wider as it grows taller, plants often shade out their own lower leaves to create a canopy of foliage above unattractive bare limbs.  This is particularly unfortunate because upright cherry laurels are usually planted for privacy that's full to the ground.  

 

To help maintain privacy even in shade, start with plants that are smaller than usual, then encourage them to grow more branches at the bottom and fewer at the top, so that what light there is can penetrate all the way to the bottom growth and keep it as vigorous and leafy as possible.  Remove branches that are growing outward instead of upward and—even though privacy, i.e., height, is always the priority—shorten the plants by a third right after planting to help the production of additional shoots from the base of the branches.

 

This pruning strategy helps to produce bushes that are narrower at the top than at the bottom—or at least less wide at the top and less bare at the bottom—which has the additional benefit of making the bush less susceptible to damage by heavy snow.

 

If possible, plant any schip laurel that's part of a privacy solution with foreground plantings that can more easily finesse the laurel's tendency to bare ankles and, often, bare knees.  Ideally, these lower species would be sited far enough from the laurels so that they themselves wouldn't make matters worse by shading out the laurels' lower growth.  A "backstage" maintenance pathway between the laurels and their fronting plantings would be ideal, even if it's only a couple of feet wide. 

 

Fronter plants can also be showy in their own right; the laurel's large, shiny, deep-green foliage couldn't be a better backdrop.  If there's full sun to only light shade, variegated boxwood, such as the readily-available 'Elegantissima', would be a sparkling as well as textural contrast.  If it doesn't matter that the foreground plantings are deciduous or even herbaceous, consider the brightly-variegated Eleutherococcus sieboldiana 'Variegata', also known as Acanthopanax sieboldiana 'Variegata'.  It's every bit the equal of cherry laurel for tolerance of sun or shade, speed of growth, and imperviousness to deer. 

 

If the soil and moisture are good enough, a foreground sweep of tall ferns would be magical as well as deer-proof.  Osmunda regalis and Matteuccia struthiopteris can both grow to four feet when happy.  Gardeners in Zone 7 and up could also consider Woodwardia species.  Don't be so eager in creating a rich and moisture-retentive bed for the ferns that you extend it over to the schip laurels.  They also welcome rich soil, but not at the expensive of excellent drainage.  The safest solution is to mound the schip laurel bed higher than that of the ferns.  The ferns appreciate the extra water from the run-off every bit as much as the laurels will appreciate the better drainage.

 

You can renew older schip laurels that have been planted for privacy, but haven't been pruned along the way to help maintain the necessary top-to-bottom density of foliage.  After new growth has begun in Spring, gird your loins and saw the entire bush down to the absolutely lowest green bud on each branch.  Treat it, in other words, as if it were a butterfly bush.  Let the bush resprout and grow ad libitum the rest of the season, but by the next, new growth may have arisen so low that you can then saw down the old stumps and stubs even farther. 

Quirks or special cases


Most other species used to create privacy have small foliage, and can be pruned without regard to cutting across individual leaves in the process.  Cherry laurel foliage is so large that leaves that would be partially cut off would be disfiguring.  Instead, prune branch-by-branch, with hand pruners or loppers, not hedge clippers.  It takes more time to prune a given length of cherry laurel hedge than if it were created with privet or holly—which, in turn, suggests that cherry laurel is not the plant for "wall-to-wall" privacy hedges.

 

Cherry laurel flowers release an enormous amount of pollen, so much so that when in flower, the bushes are "dusty" enough to make pruning impossible without wearing a facemask.  Either prune before flowering—the flowers are pleasant but by no means the reason to plant cherry laurel, so there's no loss in cutting off growth that is just about to flower—or a week or two after the flowers have faded to tan, when the pollen release will have subsided.  If you must prune during the flowering season, try hosing the bushes down first. 

Downsides

Cherry laurel's exceptionally fast growth can mean frequent pruning if they're planted in compact spaces.  Tall cultivars lose foliage from the knees down unless pruned to increase sunlight penetration to the base of the plant.  The bushes can be damaged by heavy snow load, but recover from it quickly.  Cherry laurel can self-seed, sometimes gently and sometimes more than gently.  Check to see if planting it where you garden is recommended or not. 

 

The bush is eschewed by deer because it's poisonous, and, presumably, that's apparent by smell or even by lick; in my experience, the bushes are never browsed, even just to sample.  The small black fruits are poisonous, too—and for humans as well as deer.

Variants

Cherry laurel is so serviceable, and has been in cultivation for so many centuries, that it's no surprise that many cultivars are available.  The bushes are planted by the millions, as specimens, informal screening, hedges, and large-scale groundcover.

 

Habits can be upright and tree-like, broadly upright but bushy, and, with many variants, lower and bushy, lower and wide-spreading, and even dwarf in both height and spread.  There are also a few variegated cultivars. 

 

The taller variants, such as 'Magnoliifolia', have the largest foliage but are less hardy; in Zone 7 and 8 they can become the size of Southern magnolias; in Zone 8 they can grow as tall and wide as beech trees.

 

Of the cultivars hardy into Zone 6, the typical form of Prunus laurocerasus 'Schipkaensis' is the tallest, largest-leaved, and most upright, and can grow to ten feet.  Although solidly hardy in Zone 6 and even colder, into Zone 5, it can be broken apart or even tipped over by heavy snow, so requires a long-term commitment to intervention in the teeth of the worst Winter weather.  'Otto Luyken' is mounding and not wide-spreading; to eight feet tall and only a bit wider; usually shorter.  'Zabeliana' is by far the most hardy, solidly into Zone 5, with branches that slant upward-and-outward and an almost indefinite lateral spread; individuals 25 feet wide are known.  'Mt. Vernon' is a dwarf—comparatively—to three to five feet high and five to eight wide.

 

All cherry laurels require good drainage year-round; hardiness is greatly impaired by anything less.       

Availability

On-line and, where solidly hardy, at retailers.

Propagation

By cuttings as well as by seed; cultivars do not normally come true from seed.

Native habitat

Prunus laurocerasus is native to southeastern Europe and Asia Minor.  

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