Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The "Comeback Kids": Dwarf Cherry Laurel

This spring, our Dwarf Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), Otto Luyken, bloomed for the very first time. This might not seem at all special to most gardeners, but the history of these plants makes this a rather impressive event. Just a few years ago, they were sitting on a dusty shelf at the local Home Depot, about to be tossed into the dumpster.  I couldn't be happier that they have made quite the comeback.

Often called English Laurel or Common Laurel, we bought the plants near the end of the growing season five years ago.  When we got them, they were undersized, pathetic-looking potted shrubs that were dwarfed by the one gallon containers they were potted in.  We spotted them sitting on a shelf marked down for quick sale with other equally sad looking perennials. They appeared sorely neglected and many of the leaves were yellowed and spotted, probably with some sort of fungus.

Now ordinarily, I never buy a plant that doesn't already have a designated home in our garden and I am very particular about buying plants that even hint that they might be infected. And I wasn't even looking for Cherry Laurel. I had been looking for mountain laurel shrubs for two years, but both nurseries who usually carry it around here had sold out of it very quickly and had already been out of it when we went to purchase it early in the season two years running. 

The bed we were looking to plant mountain laurel in was a new bed along the back of the gazebo that was mostly shady. I'd placed some dwarf fringed dicentras and some columbine there, but I was looking for mountain laurel to really anchor the bed and I wanted to buy four of them. The only thing these plants had going for them was that there were four of them and we had four spots to fill.  We bought them. 

From our almost weekly trips there for manure, topsoil, peat, pots, bricks, garden tools, trellises, and plants, we'd gotten to know the Plant Department manager who worked there at the time fairly well. I commented to her that they were the saddest looking plants I'd seen in a long time and they looked like they needed some love. She said they were headed for the trash. When I told my husband we should buy them because no one else would, he did the eye roll thing but he didn't say the magic words: "No way."  The plants on the shelf were marked down to $5. She said we could have them all (there were four of them) for $5 - they were literally about to be thrown out. When we paid for them, I think the clerk thought we were as good as throwing our five dollars away. I know I did.

When we arrived home, I segregated them out front, pruned the skanky leaves, and fed and watered them. I sprayed them with my usual garden spray mixture but went a little heavy on the soap and oil.  Ordinarily, given their condition, I would have wanted to isolate them from the rest of the garden until they started to show some new, healthy growth and appeared disease free (or cured). But since it was already closing in on the end of September, I needed to get them into the ground so they could establish a root system before the ground froze. As soon as I got them "cleaned up", into the ground they went. 

At the time, I knew nothing about Dwarf Cherry Laurel. The care and planting labels that are usually on the pots were long gone and the plant tags gave little information other than the plant cultivar name.  But I knew about mountain laurel, so assuming they couldn't be much different (and we all know what the meaning of the word assume is...), these four little scraggly shrubs, which I later came to learn ordinarily like full sun to part shade, ended up in a very shady garden, where, unbelievably, they have thrived.

Dwarf Cherry Laurel is ordinarily a slow to medium growing plant that needs minimal care but does require a fair amount of sun. Because they are in a garden bed that is generally out of sight (and out of mind), except for the usual spraying and feeding that the entire garden gets, they have experienced a fair amount of benign neglect since we planted them. I do make the rounds of the garden regularly with Steve, and many times, the thought, "What was I thinking?" has popped into my head. 

This year the plants have reached a height of about 18 inches high and just a bit wider, triple the size they were when I planted them. They are planted in a rich humusy soil, but I suspect the lack of full sun has slowed their growth rate even more than what is normal for them.

When I saw the flower spikes this spring, I was amazed. When the blossoms opened, I was pretty impressed with the fragrance. Although the tiny blooms faded within a week (and that could have been weather related), it was a delight to see them bloom nonetheless.


  1. Beautiful! What a great deal you got! I've not tried this plant in my garden. But I can see why you gave it a shot - four holes, four plants, $5 - serendipity!

  2. They are gorgeous. I so wanted some of these but don't have the right conditions for them. Just makes me want them more seeing your beauties.

  3. Wow, what a great find! I think we get so used to all of the info out there telling us not to buy any potted plants less than perfect, inspecting roots and all, that most people would not have taken the chance. I say "good for you!"
    Sunray Gardening is right...gorgeous!


  4. Just lovely. I've never seen them here in the Houston, TX area. It must get to warm here for them. I bet they smell good also.

  5. Your post reminded me of the otto luyken laurel I had in a shady area at the back of my house in Virginia. I had forgotten about them. I never had a problem with mine, they bloomed every year, and grew to a nice 3 foot by 3 foot size over the years. I loved their shiny leaves.

  6. What are good companions for otto? I have one and have room for a couple more.

  7. Donna, a lot will depend on where you have them planted and the purpose of the bed.

    Although the references recommend planting these in a sunny spot, I actually have them in a shade garden. Mine bloomed in late May-early June, so whether you want a punch of color with the white or after they bloom is a consideration too.

    I have them with fringed dicentra and columbine, and I like that combination. Both of those have a lengthy bloom season and I had color in the bed long after the white flower spikes faded.

    If I had them in a sunny bed, I would probably plant some cosmos and sinnias with them. The foliage is dark, glossy green and is an excellent backdrop for any color, but I am especially partial to pairing it with white or deep rose.

    If you have it in a sunny spot, in the spring, having it with peonies would be striking. In the past, since mine are in shade, I have planted impatiens in this bed and deep rose large camelia-type double impatiens blooms were stunning with it.

    However, if you are planting these as part of a foundation planting, they work well with any other shrubs, and I would plant them with something taller (like azaleas or rhodies) and smaller, like ivy or vinca. Shrub or landscape roses would be dramatic with it as well.

    Honestly, there are so many uses for this shrub, there isn't much I wouldn't plant them with, depending on the bed.


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