Sunday 04 February 1996 00:02

PRUNUS LAUROCERASUS, the common or cherry laurel, lacks glamour, but it was not always the evergreen that nobody chooses to plant. In the 17th century it was known as the Plum of Trebizond. John Evelyn, the diarist, suggested that it was brought back from Italy by the Countess of Arundel at the beginning of that century. Grown under glass and clipped into formal shapes, it was treated as an exotic and was cherished for its beauty and "continual greenness".

In the 18th century, dukes filled whole woods with massed cherry laurel for the pleasure of its shining leaves. The Victorians, however, preferred the rhododendron. Laurels were relegated to hiding service areas or privies and since this downgrading they have never been much praised again.

In winter, glossy leaves that reflect light are a pleasure, and where it does happen to be planted, Prunus lauro-cerasus comes into its own. When you think how quickly it grows and how jolly it looks compared with Britain's favourite hedge, the ubiquitous Leylandii, it is surprising that no one chooses laurel for hedges. Newer forms like "Herbergii" or "Caucasica" are more upright in growth than the old enormous spreading bushes that were so hard to control, but they are still fast growers. Plant a hedge of laurel this winter and it will be man-high well before the millennium.

There are snags about cherry laurel; it is not tender enough to be grown under glass as our ancestors supposed it to be, but in cold heavy soils it will probably struggle in times of frost. The recent weather in Glasgow would not have suited it at all; only where the soil drains fast or the situation is warm will the cherry laurel thrive. More than five degrees of frost will set it back and on chalk it is less happy than its hardier relation, the Portu-gal laurel. So it can never become a universal favourite.

Birds love the berries but it must also be admitted that the leaves, when crushed, contain enough poison to kill a butterfly in a sealed jam jar. Unlike the bay (Laurus nobilis), which is edible, the common laurel is not, but like the bay it was also used to make wreaths for victors. Alice M Coats, the great collector of legends and history attached to plants, records that branches of cherry laurel adorned the mail coaches and their guards and drivers after Trafalgar and Waterloo, so that passers- by would know that the battle had been won.

Portugal laurel needs less hype than cherry laurel. This evergreen always looks distinguished. With its almost black leaves it is a smart shrub. Hardier than the common form and not fussy about site, its only disadvantage is that it is slow to grow. Portugal laurel is the one to choose for trimmed lollipops masquerading as orange trees. This is a trick that the National Trust often practices and from a distance it always deceives - Portugal laurel might also imitate bay trees and it makes a fine hedge. The white flowers smell pleasant and the blackish red berries are pretty. Why does nobody plant it?

There are two small ornamental laurels that are interesting for their shape and foliage. "Otto Luyken" has spreading V-shaped branches, and it looks very modern and structural on either side of a door or a flight of steps. "Zabeliana", which has almost horizontal branches and narrow willow-like leaves, is also arresting. Neither of these two will grow as tall as the common or the Portugal laurel. Zabeliana will probably never exceed a metre in height but it will spread to three times that width. Then there's "Schipkaensis" which reaches about two metres.

The possibilities of laurel as great balls or buttresses of winter green are rarely explored. I cannot remember when I last saw a new planting of laurel in a garden setting. Here, we have put some in to extend an existing hedge of lilac, philadelphus and laurel, and visitors always ask why, adding: "Couldn't you think of anything better than a laurel?" Well, no. I couldn't.

Mary Keen

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