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. …