Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Just lately, I have been noticing a rather handsome evergreen shrub in the midst of the oaks and hornbeams of Coldfall Wood, and also in the cemetary next door. A quick look through my plant guides tells me that this is Cherry Laurel, described by Oliver Rackham as one of the seven ‘villains’ – alien plants that appear in woodland. For those of you interested in who the other six might be, the list includes Rhododendron, Sycamore, Ground-elder, Himalayan Balsam, Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knotweed. However, Rackham considers that only Rhododendron is a real ‘villain’ – all the rest become part of the forest flora rather than overwhelming it. This is a relief, as Cherry Laurel provides a welcome burst of fresh green when most other plants are leafless.
The leaves of Cherry Laurel are gently serrated, and the veins are very well-defined, making it easy to identify. When crushed, the leaves smell of almonds, because they contain prussic acid (cyanide). They were once used in insect-killing bottles to dispatch invertebrates that were destined for a collector’s display case. However, the smell led to it being used as a substitute for almond essence during the eighteenth century with mixed results, as reported on the wonderful Poison Garden website. Most people are unaware that this plant can be poisonous.
Cherry Laurel is a popular garden plant and spreads by suckering, so it is no surprise that, tired of the confines of a suburban plot, it advances into the wild. However, it can also be spread by birds, who love the berries, and I suspect that this is how my woodland specimens have arrived.
In spring, the upright flower spikes attract a lot of pollinators, and have a sweet, heady scent that some people love, and others can’t abide.Cherry Laurel came originally from the area around the Black Sea, probably arriving in the UK in the 16th century. It has also been part of the flora of North America for hundreds of years, and in the US this plant is known as the English Laurel. This is ironic as the plant is not only not English, but it also isn’t a laurel at all, but a member of the rose family. However, its leaves are increasingly being used for funeral wreathes instead of the more traditional leaves of the bay tree (Laurus nobilis), so maybe if you call a plant something long enough, it will take on the roles associated with its name. The wreath that honours the bust of Sir Henry Wood during the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall is made from the leaves of the Cherry Laurel.
In spite of its toxicity, several types of caterpillar are said to feed on the leaves, including the Poplar Hawkmoth, and all the specimens that I’ve seen show signs of insect depredation. So, through its plentiful nectar and pollen, berries and foliage, Cherry Laurel provides a feast for the creatures of the woodlands that it colonises. This plant may be alien and invasive but, in East Finchley at least, it gives back as much as it takes.