Evergreen bushes are essential features in gardens, providing year-round visual presence, screening and privacy. The hardiest and easiest to grow is often the best choice, and the Skip Cherry Laurel certainly satisfies that need. This adaptable plant has glossy green leaves, and it will grow well in a wide range of soils and light conditions. It is the most winter hardy of all the varieties of cherry laurel.
Skip Cherry Laurel Shrubs
This shrub to small tree is a medium-sized evergreen bush, with multiple stems, growing to 10 or 12 feet tall and 6 to 7 feet wide within five to seven years. Older plants may be considerable taller, to 18 feet, and spread wider than their height, possibly becoming over 20 feet across. The plant is easily trimmed to maintain a smaller size. This is a fast-growing tree, and young plants, or plants that have been trimmed hard, may grow 2 feet or even more in a year.
Young twigs are green to yellowish, smooth and glossy. Older bark is smooth, without fissures or ridges, and reddish-brown in color, becoming gray-brown on older stems and trunks.
The leaves are glossy, rich green in color, and evergreen. They remain on the tree for several years, eventually turning yellow and falling, normally during early summer, after the new leaves have emerged. The leaves are smooth and leathery, oval, with straight sides, and up to 4 inches long, and 2 inches wide. (In the common cherry laurel the leaves are larger, up to 6 inches long). The edge of the leaf has very fine serrations along it. The petiole (leaf stalk) is long, holding the leaves clear of the stem.
Crushed leaves often have the smell of almonds, because of the presence of small amounts of hydrogen cyanide, which makes the foliage poisonous to humans, pets, horses and livestock. In practice, animals rarely eat it, and even then usually only suffer from an upset stomach and diarrhea. Chipping the branches can release cyanide gas, which can be dangerous in closed situations, such as in bags in a car. The only deaths recorded in humans were the result of intentional poisonings.
Although this plant is a type of cherry, the flowers do not resemble those of flowering cherry trees. The white flowers are slightly ‘fluffy’, with prominent stamens, and they are carried in upright clusters, about 5 inches tall and 1 to 2 inches wide. Each cluster may carry 30 to 40 flowers, and each one is about ½ inch across. Flowering takes place in late spring, usually in April or May. The flowers have a rich, sweet perfume. Plants that are regularly trimmed may not flower at all, or only sporadically.
Flowers are followed by small berries, which are about ½ inch across. They begin green and turn black in early fall, as they mature. The fruit is a true cherry, with a single stone in the center, surrounded by flesh. They are not particularly conspicuous, and they are soon eaten by birds. The fruit is not edible, and it has a sour, and sometimes bitter, flavor. The seed, in particular, is toxic, and it should not be eaten. Noticeably bitter fruits contain a higher amount of hydrogen cyanide, and present more of a risk. Birds can eat the fruit because the seed passes through them uncrushed and undigested. The presence of this poison means that only animals that pass the seed whole will eat it, and this in turn means the seed can germinate successfully.
Uses in the Garden
Because of its hardiness and ability to survive in dark, shady areas, the Skip Cherry Laurel is a favorite choice of gardeners for filling shady areas, and for making evergreen hedges. As this is the hardiest variety of cherry laurel, it is widely grown in zone 6 and warmer parts of zone 5, for those purposes. It is also resistant to urban pollution, air pollution and dust, so it is especially popular for city gardens, although it should not be planted in very small spaces, because of its potential size.
Although commonly trimmed regularly, this plant can be an effective larger flowering shrub, if allowed to grow naturally. It can be used as a specimen plant on a large lawn, or as a background shrub in larger beds. It makes an useful screen for many purposes, from privacy to blocking unsightly views. It is also effective as a noise barrier, and to protect a garden from wind. It can be maintained as a neat hedge with regular trimming or grown as a more informal screen with little or no trimming.
Because of its shade tolerance, this plant is an excellent choice for planting beneath large trees, both deciduous and even evergreen. Few other large plants will grow in these garden locations. It can also be planted on the north side of buildings, and it tolerates drips from other plants or drainage.
Plants for trimmed hedges should be spaced 3 to 4 feet apart. For screening, spacings between 3 and 10 feet can be used, depending on how quickly a screen is needed, how frequently it will be trimmed, and how dense a screen is needed.
The Skip Cherry Laurel is very easy to grow, and it is notable for its cold hardiness, smaller size, and smaller, neater foliage than the common cherry laurel.
The ability to thrive in full sun, partial shade and even full shade makes the Skip Cherry Laurel one of the most versatile of all evergreens. This means that even if hedges and screens pass through varied light conditions, the growth levels will be similar, giving a more unified look to the planting. Plants in full sun will need more water than those growing in shade. In general, plants in cooler zones grow best with more sun, and in warmer zones some shade, especially from the afternoon sun, produces better growth.
Skip Cherry Laurel grows reliably across a wide range of soils, from sandy soils to clay, and from acidic to mildly alkaline ones. It does not grow so well on very alkaline, chalky soils, where plants may develop chlorosis – yellowing of the leaves – leading to reduced growth. Soil should be well-drained, but moist, and very wet or very dry soils are not so suitable for this plant. Higher levels of organic material in the soil produces the most vigorous and healthiest growth. This can be achieved by adding generous quantities of compost or rotted manures before planting, and by mulching young plants each year with similar materials.
Young, newly-planted trees should be watered regularly, but once established this plant will tolerate periods of drought well. Plants in locations that are regularly dry for extended periods will show reduced growth rates.
The Skip Cherry Laurel is the most cold-hardy of all the cherry laurel varieties, and it is completely hardy in zone 6. It is also hardy in warmer parts of zone 5, where most other varieties will suffer from significant winter damage and browning of the leaves. With its rapid growth rate, this tree will quickly recover from any minor winter browning of leaves, by replacing them with new ones.
In the American Horticultural Society’s heat resistance rating the Skip Cherry Laurel grows in region 10, which includes northern Florida and all but the southern parts of Texas and Arizona. It is rated to zone 9 on the USDA hardiness rating, which includes very much the same regions. This makes the tree among the most durable plants across a very large part of the country.
Pest and Diseases
There are no significant pests or disease which affect the Skip Cherry Laurel, but some insect damage from weevils and leaf-miners may be seen on a few leaves. Round holes that may look like insect damage are harmless, and caused by a fungus, not an insect. This is called shot-hole disease, and it is more harmful on other cherry trees. Plants in very hot and dry areas may show the powdery white leaf-coating of the fungal disease called powdery mildew, especially during hot and humid periods. This disease causes no long-term damage to plants. Sudden wilting and death of plants from root rot fungus may occur on plants grown in wet, poorly-drained soils, and this is the main reason plants may be lost. Deer normally will not graze on cherry laurel, because of its cyanide content.
Young plants, and plants trimmed regularly, will benefit from spring and summer fertilizing with a general-purpose hedge and broad-leaf evergreen fertilizer. Young plants respond best to liquid formulations, while larger hedges and older plants are more easily fed with granular formulations. Heavy amounts of fertilizer will stimulate maximum growth, but it may inhibit the production of flower buds.
Trimming and pruning
Skip Cherry Laurel does not need to be trimmed, but over time plants spread wider than they are tall, so the lower parts will be heavily shaded, and will often lose leaves, making a more tree-like plant. To maintain foliage right to the ground, periodic trimming is suggested, to keep the plant narrower and more pyramidal in shape. The best time to trim is in spring, or immediately after flowering. Plants grown in more formal hedges can be trimmed again in late summer or early fall.
Young plants are best trimmed with hand pruners, as the foliage is easily cut with hedge trimmers. This becomes impractical for larger hedges, but new growth will quickly hide any cut leaves, and since this variety has smaller leaves, newly-trimmed hedges look a lot better than when older varieties with larger leaves are trimmed.
The cherry laurel, common laurel or English laurel, Prunus laurocerasus, grows in south-east Europe and south-west Asia, all around the Black Sea. It can be found from Bulgaria and Albania into Turkey, through the Caucasus Mountains and as far east as the northern regions of Iran. It is an unlikely member of the stone fruit genus, Prunus, which includes almonds, apricots, cherries, nectarines, plums and peaches. Cherry Laurel grows beneath and among larger forest trees, often in beech forests. Wild trees are typically 15 to 40 feet tall, with some trees reaching 60 feet. It has been widely grown in Europe and Britain for centuries.
The similar Carolina Laurel, Prunus caroliniana, is an American native tree also grown in gardens in the South. The name ‘laurel’ was once commonly given to any tree with oval, leathery evergreen leaves, including the bay laurel, used as a kitchen flavoring and for the famous ‘laurel wreath’ of antiquity. Plants such as Rhododendron and Kalmia are also sometimes called ‘laurel’, leading to confusion.
The variety called ‘Schipkaensis’ was found in the Schipka Pass, in Bulgaria, and distributed for gardens around 1886. It was immediately noticed for its winter hardiness, growing much further north in Europe than other forms. It was probably introduced into the United States in the early 20th century, and it has been a popular garden choice ever since, particularly in colder zones, but also everywhere shade is a problem. There appear to be several forms of this tree circulating in nurseries, which may account for the wide differences seen in the suggested size it may reach. It is not a noticeably dwarf form of the wild tree, but it is more compact, and less tree-like.
The Skip Cherry Laurel will remain the most popular and reliable choice of this plant, and its more compact form and smaller leaves, combined with winter hardiness, make it a preferable choice over the natural forms of this shade-tolerant garden essential.