Wednesday, March 26, 2014

cherry laurel begins

Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) just coming into flower, on March 21st 2014. (On the same day I also saw the first flowers of Wild Cherry (P. avium) and Sargent Cherry (P. sargentii).)

Cherry Laurels can be fairly big but are never trees, because they have no main trunk. I feel quite a close connection with them; most of the "secret camps" of my childhood games were within the crowns of what I then knew as laurel bushes. They have a sort of room-like interior, a bit gloomy but mostly dry and with bare clay floors. This dryness is why cherry-laurels are favoured by gamekeepers, they are ideal for sheltering pheasants.

They come from the Caucasus/Black Sea regions, originally. However in the UK they were very widely planted as screening and game-cover and are a typical feature of secondary woodland, spreading invasively after a slow start (apparently introduced in 1576, but not recorded as wild until 1886 - much of the spread has come in the last forty years).

The wood is very heavy and dense. It feels like a great wood for carving, but apparently this is not so; it contains too much water and cracks when seasoned. It is good firewood. There are cyanides in the fresh leaves and fruit-pips, and these can cause painful headaches (often next day). In the good old days, junior entomologists used the crushed leaves in killing-jars. According to Monty Don, the water that drips off the leaves poisons those few plants that might otherwise tolerate the shade. Distillation of the leaves produces "cherry-laurel water" which in the eighteenth-century was a popular food-flavouring (because it smells like almonds). But you were supposed to dilute it. People who didn't dilute it died of prussic acid poisoning. Once this fact had become well established cherry-laurel water fell out of use as a food flavouring but started up a new career in the murder and suicide line.

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