Lau­rels are hardy, but which one is the real McCoy?

There is to­tal con­fu­sion as to what con­sti­tutes a ‘true laurel’, and many could make a claim on the leafy crown

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - GARDENING -


Awhile ago I came across a short ar­ti­cle in a gar­den­ing mag­a­zine about lau­rels. It talked about Por­tuguese laurel (Prunus lusi­tan­ica) and spot­ted laurel (Au­cuba japon­ica), but had most to say about cherry laurel (Prunus lau­ro­cera­sus), which it de­scribed as “the true laurel”.

My Shorter Ox­ford Dic­tionary de­fines a laurel as (among other things) both “a tree or shrub of the genus lau­rus (fam­ily Lau­raceae), es­pe­cially the bay tree, Lau­rus no­bilis” (and, sep­a­rately, as any mem­ber of the Lau­raceae) and “any of var­i­ous trees and shrubs hav­ing leaves re­sem­bling those of the bay tree”. Which il­lus­trates the prob­lem; the word “laurel” is be­ing asked to do too much. On the one hand, it’s short­hand for the bay tree, or any mem­ber of the genus lau­rus, or in­deed of the fam­ily Lau­raceae. On the other hand, it’s a use­ful name for any lau­rel­like tree or shrub, which es­sen­tially means any­thing with leath­ery, en­tire, ev­er­green leaves.

That se­cond def­i­ni­tion is very broad in­deed, and can in­clude sev­eral ev­er­green cher­ries and the spot­ted laurel (as above), plus spurge laurel (Daphne lau­re­ola), Alexan­drian laurel (Danae race­mosa), Chilean laurel (Lau­re­lia sem­per­virens), two Amer­i­can oaks (Quer­cus hemis­phaer­ica, Q. lau­ri­fo­lia), and no doubt oth­ers. Nat­u­rally the cher­ries are re­lated to each other, but all the other lau­rels are com­pletely un­re­lated, to each other or to lau­rus.

On top of that, there’s the rest of the Lau­raceae, in­clud­ing sas­safras, cin­na­mon, avo­cado and lin­dera which, un­usu­ally for a laurel, is de­cid­u­ous and is grown mostly for its ex­cel­lent au­tumn colour. The won­der­ful Cal­i­for­nian laurel or headache tree (Um­bel­lu­laria cal­i­for­nica) has aro­matic leaves, a bit like bay but even stronger – I never was quite sure whether the smell was sup­posed to give you a headache, or cure it. A very fine spec­i­men in Sh­effield Botan­i­cal Gar­dens blew down in a storm a few years ago, and is sadly missed.

In an­cient Greece, wreaths of bay laurel leaves were used to crown the vic­tors of ath­letic com­pe­ti­tions in the an­cient Olympic Games. Julius Cae­sar and Napoleon Bon­a­parte both un­der­stood the sym­bol­ism of the laurel

GEN­UINE AR­TI­CLE? Cherry laurelmain, and a 1804 por­trait of Napoleon Bon­a­parte wear­ing a gold laurel crown

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