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
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