An evergreen shrub of quick growth and wide-spreading habit, attaining a height of over 20 ft, twice as much in width; young shoots pale green and, like all other parts of the plant, devoid of hairs or down. Leaves of leathery texture, dark shining green, of various shapes and sizes, usually oblong, but sometimes oblanceolate, averaging from 4 to 6 in. in length by rather less than one-third as much wide, margin obscurely toothed; stalk about 1⁄2 in. long. The blade always bears on its lower surface near the base two or more glands. Flowers in axillary and terminal racemes, 3 to 5 in. long, 3⁄4 in. through; each flower on a stalk 1⁄6 in. long, itself dull white, 1⁄3 in. across. Fruits black-purple, about 1⁄2 in. long, conical, and containing a similarly shaped stone.
A native mainly of the forest region that stretches from south of the Caspian through the western parts of the Caucasus and Transcaucasia and the mountains of Anatolia, south of the Black Sea; in Europe it occurs in the Belgrade forest near Istanbul, and in some of the mountain forests of Bulgaria; a relict stand occurs in Serbia, where it does not fruit but maintains itself by layering. Throughout most of its range it is associated with the oriental beech, and often with Rhododendron ponticum. It reached western Europe at the end of the 16th century and was in cultivation in Britain early in the next century.
P. laurocerasus flowers in April, nearly two months in advance of the Portugal laurel, but is not so ornamental. For some strange reason the cherry laurel is rarely seen at its best, which is when it is grown as an isolated specimen unmolested by the pruner. It then makes a vigorous evergreen of exceptional size and elegance. It bears pruning well, however, and is, in consequence, often used to form a low covering for banks and slopes by keeping it severely cropped. This may have been necessary in earlier times when dwarf evergreens were scarcer, but there are several now that may be made to serve such a purpose without having to undergo the periodical mutilation to which laurels are subjected. Still less is it adapted for planting in ordinary shrubberies, where its vigorous self-assertion and hungry roots give little chance for things near it.
The cherry laurel does not appear to be quite so hardy as the Portugal laurel, although on dry soil it is not much injured by any temperature above 5° F. It is admirably adapted for planting as undergrowth in thin woodland, where there is room for its full development. All the forms are easily increased by late summer cuttings placed in gentle heat. A considerable number of varieties are now offered by nurserymen, some of garden origin, some natural. Only the most distinct of these can be mentioned, and of these very few have been authoritatively described. A study of the cultivated varieties by H. J. van de Laar was published in Dendroflora No. 7 (1970), pp. 42-61 (in Dutch, with English summary and numerous illustrations).
cv. ‘Angustifolia’. – Described by Loudon as a more dwarf-growing plant, which seldom flowers; leaves about one-third as wide as in the normal form, i.e., scarcely 1 in. wide (Arb. et Frut. Brit., Vol. II, p. 716 (1838)). See also ‘Parvifolia’.
cv. ‘Camelliifolia’. – Leaves of ordinary size, but curled and twisted. Curious, but not ornamental. There is an example at Wakehurst Place, Sussex, and another in the R.H.S. Garden at Wisley, in Seven Acres.
cv. ‘Caucasica’. – A vigorous, erect shrub with more or less elliptic leaves up to 7 in. long, about 3 in. wide, deep green. One of the finest.
cv. ‘Colchica’. – Leaves up to 7 in. long, 2 in. wide, tapering to the stalk.
cv. ‘Compacta’. – Leaves about the ordinary size, but the habit dwarf and close. Introduced to Kew from Transon’s nurseries, Orleans.
cv. ‘Herbergii’. – A dense erect shrub with narrow elliptic leaves up to 6 in. long, 13⁄4 in. wide, tapered at the apex, glossy. Very hardy and a good hedging plant. Raised in Germany.
cv. ‘Magnoliifolia’. – The finest of all the varieties in foliage, the largest leaves 10 to 12 in. long, 3 to 41⁄2 in. wide. A strong grower, it may, if desired, be trained into tree form by tying up a lead and gradually removing the lower branches. It came to Kew under its present name from the Hon. Charles Ellis in 1897, but according to him was also known as latifolia. The variety ‘Macrophylla’ (?’Bertinii’), raised at Versailles, seems to be similar, judging from the original descriptions (Rev. Hort. (1869), p. 180 and (1885), p. 18).
cv. ‘Mischeana’. – Of spreading, more or less horizontal habit, with dark green leaves up to 51⁄2 in. long, 2 in. or slightly more wide. Introduced by Späth’s nurseries from the Balkans and put into commerce around 1900.
cv. ‘Otinii’. – Leaves large and broad, but not remarkable for size so much as for their dark, almost black, lustrous green; the plant is of more compact habit than most varieties. Raised by Otin, head gardener at the Jardin des Plantes, St Etienne, France, before 1873, from seed of ‘Caucasica’.
cv. ‘Otto Luyken’. Of compact, horizontal habit, 3 to 4 ft high eventually. Leaves dark green, about 4 in. long, slightly under 1 in. wide, tapered at both ends, tips slightly acuminate. Very free flowering. A variety of recent origin raised by Messrs Hesse of Weener, Hanover. A.M. 1968.
cv. ‘Parvifolia’ (‘Microphylla’). – A dwarf, narrow-leaved form, the smallest leaves 1 in. long by 1⁄4 in. wide only, and the plant 11⁄2 to 2 ft high. It may occasionally be seen reverting back to the typical form.
This variety has apparently also been called angustifolia in gardens, though it is different from the ‘Angustifolia’ of Loudon. Both varieties were sometimes sold in the last century as “Hartogia capensis”, properly an evergreen species from S. Africa, belonging to the Celastraceae.
cv. ‘Reynvaanii’. – Of dense, erect habit to about 5 ft high, with more or less elliptic, acute, dark green leaves up to 5 or 6 in. long and to 13⁄4 in. wide, raised in Holland. In cultivation in the University Botanic Garden, Cambridge.
cv. ‘Rotundifolia’. – Leaves about half as broad as long, yellowish green. Tall growing.
cv. ‘Schipkaensis’. – Originally found wild near the Shipka Pass in Bulgaria, north of Kazanlik, and introduced to cultivation by Späth about 1886. It has narrow, entire leaves, 2 to 41⁄2 in. long, 3⁄4 to 11⁄2 in. wide, and a certain elegance of habit, but is not so ornamental as some of the larger-leaved varieties. Racemes 21⁄2 to 3 in. high. Its great value is its extreme hardiness. It will withstand winters where no cherry laurel has been known to do so before, such as N. Germany and parts of N. America.
Although the plants originally distributed by Späth were probably all of one clone, the epithet schipkaensis seems to have been used for other introductions from the Bulgarian mountains, and for seedlings of the original variety. According to H. van de Laar, the true ‘Schipkaensis’ has relatively broader leaves than the plant described above.
cv. ‘Zabeliana’. – Of the same type as ‘Schipkaensis’ and equally hardy. Leaves also entire, narrow, and almost willow-like, the branches growing rather stiffly and obliquely upwards. Put into commerce by Späth in 1898. It is very free flowering and valuable as a specimen or for ground-cover, retaining its low habit even in shade. It attains a width of 12 ft or even more, but is usually under 3 ft in height. At Aldenham it reached 5 ft in height and 25 ft in spread.