Sandy’s Garden ... the Common Laurel

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

My tried and trusted copy of ‘The Gardener’s Perpetual Almanack’ tells me that the plant of the day for January 9 was Prunus laurocerasus, thoughtfully adding that this shrub is more often called ‘the Common Laurel’.

And, as we have been reminded altogether too many times already during the first days of this new year, 2012 is the year of the London Olympics, when the entire United Kingdom will be caught up in the romance and excitement of the greatest sporting event in the entire world, made even more romantic and even more exciting by virtue of the 2012 games being held in … wait for it, wait for it … London!

Well, maybe the publicists are correct, though the spirit of Olympic excitement has yet to enter my soul. Still, given that the early Olympian victors were rewarded with laurel wreaths in Ancient Greece – I wonder how today’s professional sportsmen and sportswomen would react were this ancient custom to be reintroduced? - it seems appropriate to take a quick look at Prunus laurocerus, the Common Laurel.

Let’s start with some basic facts. Prunus laurocerasus – the name means the member of the same family as the plum tree (Prunus) which is in the group called ‘laurels’ (lauro) and has cherry-like berries (cerasus) – is a frequently cultivated evergreen shrub or small tree having showy clusters of white flowers and glossy foliage and yielding oil similar to bitter almond oil; and a shrub is a low, woody perennial plant usually having several major stems as distinct from a tree which is usually regarded as having a single trunk.

The Common Laurel occurs in both forms and came originally from south-eastern Europe and western Asia. Also known as the Cherry Laurel, it is an easily-grown plant that thrives in any reasonable soil, though it does prefer well-drained ground and it is happiest grown in a site where it does not get full sun, for it enjoys some shade. Left unpruned, it will grow to a height of about five metres – say, 15 feet in old money – but, since it is often used for hedging, the height of the shrubs is usually determined by the gardener’s trusty pruning shears. Grown primarily for its large, shiny leaves, the Common Laurel produces candles of small, white flowers in April or May and, as its other common name makes clear, red berries in the late summer.

Now let’s move on to the realm of fiction. In Greek mythology, Daphne, the virgin goddess of hunting and nature, caught the eye of the great god Apollo. Unable to escape his unwelcome attentions, Daphne begged her father to save her, which he did by turning her into a laurel bush. The besotted Apollo, who lived on Mount Olympus, adopted the laurel as his symbol, which explains why Olympic champions were crowned with laurel wreaths.

More recently, the laurel wreath has come to be regarded as a symbol of any victory, with the expression, ‘resting on one’s laurels’ referring to someone relying on long-past successes for continued fame or recognition; and ‘to look to one’s laurels’ is nowadays an admonition to an individual to recollect past achievements and set out to overcome fresh challenges.

And finally, our predecessors used fresh laurel leaves in the treatment of coughs, whooping cough, asthma, dyspepsia and indigestion; they used an infusion of the leaves to treat eye infections; and they ate the fruit. But here comes a warning; the plant contains natural chemicals called amygdalin and prunasin, which break down in water to form hydrocyanic acid, otherwise known as cyanide.

In very small amounts, cyanide is said actually to improve one’s digestion and to confer a sense of general well-being. However, since cyanide is much better known as a deadly poison, I think I shall take no chances and shall neither eat any part of the Common Laurel nor drink any concoction made from it.