“Good fences make good neighbors” sings the proverb, and while Robert Frost may beg difference, an urban or suburban beekeeper would certainly agree. In Charlotte, it is as easy to grow a fence as to build one, and one of the favorite screen and hedge plants is Prunus laurocerasus, the Schipka Cherry Laurel, sometimes called the skip laurel or English laurel. A shade-tolerant, drought-tolerant evergreen, various cultivars can be pruned to a low hedge and some can grow as high as forty feet. A stroll through some neighborhoods in April finds one nearly surrounded by cherry laurel in various stages of bloom.
- Common Name: English laurel, skip laurel, cherry laurel
- Botanical Name: Prunus laurocerasus L.
- Plant Type: Evergreen shrub or tree
- Typical Bloom Period: March-April
- Nectar Usefulness: lower
- Pollen Usefulness: low
Prunus laurocerasus is native to the regions surrounding the Black Sea. It grows large, thick, shiny leaves alternating on stems to form a dense thicket when pruned. An abundance of white flowers grow in clusters on a vertical stalk (raceme). Individual flowers have five petals and an abundance of stamens; the flowers are perfect and self-fertile — they do not require a pollinator to fruit. The fruits are clusters of drupes — fleshy outside and a hard shell covering a seed inside, a stonefruit — which start green and ripen through red to nearly black. Birds distribute the seeds to propagate the plant; it also spreads by growing roots from stems where they touch the ground.
A native cousin, Prunus caroliniana, looks nearly the same; it forms a less dense hedge and left alone will grow into a small tree. It blooms earlier in the year than the cultivated varieties.
Current industrial research on Prunus laurocerasus is mostly focused upon the layers of waxy outer coating on the leaves and upon the antioxidant food value of the fruits. Some cultivars of Prunus laurocerasus are developed to serve a market demand for their cherries in southeastern Europe. Do not eat very bitter fruits as part of your own exploration, however. Leaves, twigs and bark of the cherry laurel smell of almond when crushed; this indicates the presence of hydrogen cyanide, a poison. Know your cultivar and be very cautious with this plant.
Our bees respond to cherry laurel with mixed reviews. In more urban locations, the sheer abundance of the plant makes it valuable as a forage source. In Peter Lindtner’s book, Garden Plants for Honey Bees (Wicwas 2014), he rates Prunus laurocerasus low as a pollen source, and lower as a nectar source. So when something better is available (like other Prunus species), the bees are likely working there instead. Lindtner observes pollen pellets of cherry laurel to be light yellow to green.