Fast growing hedges for privacy

A fast growing hedge will increase privacy, while also adding texture and interest to your landscaping. Looking to turn your garden into a secluded oasis, or just block out your view of passing traffic? A fence or brick wall might offer an instant solution, but a lush green hedge will act as a natural and attractive screen.

Fast growing hedge plants – what are my options?

Cherry Laurel

One of the most popular choices for privacy hedging, the cherry laurel is extremely fast growing. Also known as common laurel, this evergreen species thrives in shadier conditions as well as in direct sunlight. Growth wise, you can expect about 60cm per year in average conditions. However, the cherry laurel can also be very toxic.

Bay Laurel

Valued among the Ancient Greeks, the bay laurel had strong associations with the god Apollo – and its leaves were even fashioned into wreaths for the victors of an early incarnation of the Olympic Games. Attractive and aromatic, today laurus nobilis is prized as a fast growing privacy hedge.

While the bay generally won’t grow as quickly as the cherry laurel – about 40cms a year is average – this can be a plus point once your hedge is fully established. If you’re able to be slightly more patient now, you may well be glad you did a few years down the line.


Once ubiquitous, privet has somewhat waned in popularity in recent years. However, if you’re seeking a more formal edge to your landscaping, it might well be what you’re looking for. Its dense growth will ensure privacy, and is ideal for shaping.

It’s also very fast growing – 30 to 60cm per year is to be expected, particularly if you use a plant feed – which means that it will need pruning several times a year to keep it under control and looking its best.


Almost as popular as the laurel, leylandii is a fast growing species that, with a little maintenance, will soon give you a dense protective screen to lend your garden the privacy you’re seeking. One of the fastest growing hedge plants, leylandii can grow up to 90cm in a year – so have those pruning shears at the ready!


If you’re looking for a hedging plant that will create a visual screen without taking up too much space, bamboo can be a surprisingly viable alternative. Golden bamboo or fountain bamboo will create a screening effect while also adding a lush and informal ambience to your landscaping. You can also purchase bamboo that has been formed into rolled screening ready for you to attach to posts.

Privacy hedge planting tips for fast growth

Autumn to early spring is the ideal time to plant your new Laurel or Leylandii hedge, although your task will be easier if you avoid periods of ground frost. Planting outside of this optimum time is still an option, although it will mean that you need to pay a little more attention to ensuring the roots don’t dry out.

It’s imperative to prepare the ground first. Ensure the area you’ll be planting in is thoroughly weeded six weeks earlier, then give the area another once over for new weed growth before you start. Finally, add some plant food at the same time as your new plants.

For speed, opt for more mature plants to start with. Hedge plants are usually sold as either bare root, root-balled or container/pot grown. While neither option is definitively superior, if you want to increase privacy in your garden quickly, container grown is the strongest option.

For Laurel and Leylandii, spacing plants at a distance of no less than 60cm is ideal. If you’re not so concerned about achieving a screening effect quickly, you can even afford to space out a little further up to 1 metre apart. Bamboo should be spaced according to the size of the particular species, but as a guide you’ll usually be aiming for 1 plant per 100-150cms. Privet should be planted closer together – 4 plants per metre is perfect. How deep you need to plant will depend on the size of the plants you’ve purchased – your supplier should be able to advise you on this.

Communication is the key

Finally, if you’re planting a privacy hedge along a shared border, considering having a friendly chat with your neighbour before you begin. Tall, dense hedges can block out natural light, so your neighbours may be concerned about this. Make a point of reassuring them that you’ll be keeping your new hedge maintained to a reasonable height over the years to come.

Some plants are glamorous from seed, some have glamour thrust upon them by the vagaries of fashion, but some plants would not be glamorous if you dressed them up as a Christmas tree and put them in high heels. They seem to be inevitably cast as an extra, used merely to flesh out a scene or two.

Clearly to qualify for this dubious honour it is no good being rare or perversely tricky to grow. There are a raft of dull plants that people work themselves into spasms of appreciation about simply because they are almost impossible to keep alive. But to be sent to horticultural Coventry you have to be tough and ubiquitous.

Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica) falls neatly into this category. It works its anonymous way into most gardens sooner or later. This is odd because it is surprisingly expensive to buy. Nor is it particularly dull – if you look at it closely, it has a wonderful richness in the contrast between the two greens of the leaves and the plum intensity of the new stems and stalks. Two greens? Yes, dramatically so, because the young leaves start life folded in on themselves like barely opened pods, then grow through stages of rewound origami to open and flatten into a mature surface of constant glossy green. These leaves are a fine shape, curving away from the stem in a frozen trajectory, spiralling elegantly round the branch. The smoky crimson eventually hardens and matures to an unremarkable brown but is not lessened by its transience, and is anyway constantly replaced by new growth. It is solemnly beautiful in a way that a camellia, rhododendron or ‘proper’ laurel could not aspire to match.

And, if you do not prune it until after midsummer, it develops flowers that have a strangely accidental quality somewhere between bunting and fluff. Their scent hints at the laurel’s ancestry, because they have a hint of hawthorn, to which they are rather incredibly a cousin, both being members of the rose family. When you look at some of the sempervirens roses or Rosa banksiae , the family ties show faintly through. The flowers, completely unrose-like, in turn make berries that start out bright cherry red and wind up a glossy black. Game birds love them apparently, although I have yet to catch a pheasant scrumping for them in my own garden. They were often planted as cover on sporting estates in the last century with the happy upshot that in the milder parts of the country, like Cornwall, they have grown with rapacious vigour, forming astonishing jungles of cover.

My own belief is that in anything less than a Cornish valley garden, Portuguese laurel begs to be clipped and clipped hard. This could be in the form of a hedge but it is often better as a single specimen for larger pieces of topiary such as ‘lollipops’ or balls set at the top of a straight bare stem, especially on poor (particularly chalky) soil or in a shady position. This is hardly a wide-ranging remit but there are few gardens that cannot be improved by some topiarised lollipops. It can be grown in a container with almost criminal neglect but, as the Cornish examples show, will grow very fast if given water and decent soil. If you were ambitious and patient, it would make a genuinely large specimen and do so much faster than either yew or holly would, the only other two evergreens that could possibly achieve the same effect.

If you are looking for a laurel to train into a standard it is important not to confuse it with the cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). This was brought to the notice of the west by a French botanist, Pierre Belon, when he saw it in the Middle East. It is called the cherry laurel because the fruits look a little bit like cherries and the leaves look a little bit like the bay (Laurus nobilis). Call it any name you like but it has none of the charm of its Portuguese cousin. It is hard to think of it as a Mediterranean plant as it is fixed in my mind as the archetypal Victorian shrubbery tree and maker of countless gloomy hedges hiding gloomy suburban villas. One might think that it has little to recommend it other than its willingness to grow in almost total shade, but I can see that to the 16th- and 17th-century gardener this was a significant addition to the range of plants available to them. It is hard for us to imagine how limited their choice of plants were prior to the huge quantity of introductions in the 18th and 19th centuries. The only evergreens they could easily grow and shape were yew, box and holly. Laurel provided a robust evergreen with large leaves that would grow in almost any circumstances and was welcomed accordingly. Even in the late 18th century it was apparently used extensively as underplanting. Certainly at Stourhead we know that much of the intensive tree planting was underplanted with cherry laurel and that it was widely used to bulk out and infill the embryonic woodlands as they grew. This underplanting used as part of the fantastically ambitious landscaping schemes of the very rich gradually filtered down through the social classes and ended up as the dreadful shrubberies that increased the gloom of the Victorian middle classes. The Victorians also used laurel as part of their bedding schemes. They wanted evergreens to provide ‘interest’ over the winter months. So tough, dull, laurel was pressed into service.

If you do inherit one that is too big, I know from experience that they can be cut right back to the bare wood without harm. I cut down a vastly overgrown laurel hedge that lined the drive of my last house and it grew back from the stumps with almost manic vigour, and was eventually only halted by grubbing out with a JCB. But for all its inclination to thrive in gloom, the cherry laurel is not so tough or tolerant of thin soils as the Portuguese laurel.

But I have just discovered one fact about the cherry laurel that softens my dislike of it, which is that when you break the surface you can smell almonds. This is because it has prussic acid in it and this lead to it being used in insect-killing bottles.

There is also the lovely laurel story of the maze at Glendurgan, the National Trust garden in Cornwall, which needs cutting up to five times a year to keep its shape. To add entertainment to injury, the gardeners then have to collect up the cut leaves into baskets and retrace the maze all the winding way back to its entrance before they can be wheeled away.

There are also a number of variants on the basic laurel, such as the azorica which has broad leaves, the ‘Myrtifolia’ that has smaller leaves and the ‘Variegata’ that has variegated leaves. But I must confess that I can’t see much point in straying from the norm in this instance because the effect is to be had from the overall impression rather than the telling detail.

My roots: A week in Monty’s garden

The natural order of things has returned. The hens are laying again. This is a slight exaggeration as they have produced the grand total of three eggs in the last eight days, but this is a 300 per cent improvement on the previous three months, so celebrations are unconfined.

I am only half joking. The first eggs of spring don’t just seem a culinary treat as they are incomparably nicer to eat than any eggs you can buy, but they also have real significance for the garden. It sets the natural order of things straight. I have been pouring food into the birds for week after week, locking them up at night and letting them out first thing. And I’ve spent hours moving their fencing so that they can have fresh grass. I know that in the ideal organic scheme of things they would be earning their winter keep by charmingly working their way round the orchard, eating all the leather jackets and bugs, but they run as fast as their stumpy legs will carry them, straight to the newly planted hedges that have been painstakingly mulched, systematically working along the hedgeline and scattering the mulch into the long grass.

I have noticed that the ‘Ballard’s Group’ hellebores are much more prone to leaf blotch or black spot than the ordinary Helleborus orientalis . This is a real problem once it gets into the new growth. Whatever vernacular name you use to describe it, the cause is the fungus Coniothyrium hellebori which, like all fungi, likes our damp soil and high rainfall. Part of the problem is the growth of the trees around this area. So, after just six years, I had to saw back all the overhanging branches from the ashes, hollies, field maples, willows and crab apples that I planted specifically to create shelter in order to let in a little more light and air.

Before Christmas, I bought a bag of tulips from the local farm shop containing 200 ‘Queen of Sheba’ and 100 ‘White Triumphator’. The plan was to rush home and plant them immediately and not to worry if they came up a little late. I did the rushing home bit and did not think about them again until I discovered them in their bags in the potting shed, quietly sprouting. However, we have planted them all the same, just putting them in about an inch deep. Something might be salvaged. The truth is that this kind of careless neglect is not at all atypical. But let he who is without sloth and chaos cast the first rotten bulb.

Your roots

Don’t delay hedging any longer, and sow your sweet peas

It is becoming urgent that you get any deciduous trees and hedging material planted very soon so that the roots can establish before new growth appears above ground. If it is a hedge that you are planting, the importance of preparing the ground cannot be overstressed. A hedge planted into deeply dug, well-manured soil will grow at least twice as fast as one planted without any proper preparation. And don’t forget to water in any new plants well.

Sow sweet peas four or five to a pot and germinate on a window sill or in a green house. They can be put outside to harden off in a month or so and planted out at Easter.

If you have ground that you want to prepare for planting and are unable to dig it, buy some organic compost or spread manure thickly (at least 2in deep and preferably twice that) over the site and leave it. By the middle of spring the worms will have started to work it into the soil, which will have warmed up faster because of its blanket of muck. You can then either fork it in or simply plant through it. This is not as good as digging but is a good substitute.

Prunus laurocerasus Novita
Cherry Laurel – Bush – 10L


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Cherry Laurel ‘Novita’

Cherry laurel ‘Novita or prunus laurocerasus ‘Novita’ is a variety of cherry laurel, and is derived from the cultivar ‘Rotundifolia’. It is very similar to both the natural species and its parent cultivar ‘Rotundifolia’. Cherry laurel ‘Novita’, however, is not only more resistant to plant diseases, but also more resilient to cold weather than ‘Rotundifolia’, which makes ‘Novita’ perfect for the northern parts of the country, where the winters tend to be more severe. Cherry laurel ‘Novita’ has large rounded leaves, similar to ‘Rotundifolia’, and grows 40-50cm a year.

Evergreen Hedges with Year-Round Interest

This fast-growing variety can reach an ultimate height of 5-6m tall and has a compact growth habit, which makes it a good screening hedge. The leathery, glossy evergreen leaves and the panicles of white flowers in late spring, which are followed by berries in autumn, ensure year-round interest. The glossy red fruits that mature to black are eaten by birds, while the white flowers provide a food source for pollinators. It will grow in any soil type and is tolerant of poor conditions. It can be planted in full sun, but will even tolerate full shade and still produce flowers. Chalky soils are less favourable and probably need to be treated. Trim as necessary for a formal or informal hedge.

Cherry Laurel ‘Novita’ Maintenance

There are not many evergreen non-conifers that grow quite as fast as the cherry laurel. Of all the plants suitable for hedging in British gardens, ivy is the only non-coniferous evergreen that grows faster than most cherry laurel cultivars. Despite this rapid growth rate, it only needs to be pruned twice a year. Most of the pruning is done in early spring, around March, but we strongly recommend trimming your hedge again in September. Pruning a cherry laurel hedge is not difficult, but it does demand a careful approach, as using large tools, such as hedge shears, are likely to damage the beautiful leaves of the cherry laurel ‘Novita’. So make sure you only cut the branches.

Cherry Laurel ‘Novita’: Exceptionally Hardy

In the unlikely event your cherry laurel ‘Novita’ hedge becomes overgrown, you can even rejuvenate it by cutting it back to about half a metre above the ground. This only confirms the strength of this wonderful hedge plant Many people are looking for the beauty of a cherry laurel hedge in their garden, but some gardens are just not too welcoming for the popular ‘Rotundifolia’ variety. If your garden is too cold for that cultivar, cherry laurel ‘Novita’ will offer you the same playful look and year-round screening opportunities combined with more resilience to frost and diseases. If you are looking for an equally hardy, but lower cherry laurel hedge, the ‘Zabeliana’ and ‘Etna’ cultivars are excellent smaller varieties of cherry laurel.

Cherry Laurel Novita – Prunus Novita

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Cherry Laurel Novita
Cherry Laurel Novita, Latin name Prunus Laurocerasus Novita, is a new variety of cherry laurel that is much more resilient to cold weather than the original cherry laurel.

Cherry Laurel is one of our best-selling hedging plants and for good reason. It’s evergreen, reliable, fast-growing. Novita brings all these qualities and with it a super-hardy constitution.

Prunus Laurocerasus Novita’s leaves are obovate and glossy mid-green all year round. They grow densely on strong, flexible upright stems. In April small fragrant creamy-white flowers appear that are loved by bees. Flowers are followed by small black berries in autumn.

This cultivar of cherry laurel is very popular because it’s hardy and quick growing but you can easily maintain it with shears or secateurs (preferable in order to avoid cutting through the large leaves).

Height and Spread Cherry Laurel Novita
Prunus Laurocerasus Novita will reach a maximum height of six metres and spread across the same distance. This makes it an excellent hedging plant. Keeping the plants shorter at around 1-2 metres results in a rich densely-packed hedge that’s a perfect deterrent against intruders and a haven for wildlife.

How Hardy is Cherry Laurel Novita
Prunus Novita is exceptionally hardy. It will grow throughout the UK and survive sub-zero temperatures in exposed, windy places. It thrives in coastal areas too so long as the ground is not waterlogged.

How To Use Cherry Laurel Novita
The most popular way to use Prunus Laurocerasus Novita is hedging or screening as it quickly grows into a thick private barrier without any fuss. It can also be used as low maintenance mixed planting, for soil erosion control, and evergreen structure through the seasons. Plant at two-metre intervals to create a dense hedge or dot them around your garden to provide evergreen interest and shelter for birds.

How To Care For Cherry Laurel Novita
Prunus Laurocerasus Novita needs very little care because it thrives in all soils and grows facing any direction. Once established its drought hardy and tolerates exposed conditions well. Prune back branches in spring or late summer to maintain the required height and neatness or let it run wild in a wildlife garden. This cherry laurel grows quickly so yearly pruning is essential if you want to maintain a certain height.

Water Prunus Laurocerasus Novita well until it’s established and apply a thick application of mulch in spring to retain moisture and keep down competitive weeds. This leads to a healthy, glossy and fast-growing cherry laurel.

FREQUENTLY BOUGHT WITH >> Prunus Laurocerasus Etna Hedging Cherry Laurel Root Ball Hedging Portuguese Laurel Root Ball Hedging Prunus Laurocerasus Otto Luyken


From Crown to Cooking

Two types of crowns are mentioned in the New Testament. The first is a regal crown of precious metal, what we would normally think of as a crown. The second is the laurel wreath, presented to the winner of the ancient games. The symbolism of this prize would be well known to New Testament writers acquainted with Greek culture(1). A kind of vegetable tiara, it was woven from the leaves and young branches of the laurel, Laurus nobilis. A literal translation of the Latin name is the noble laurel, a very apt description of this shrub or small tree common in forest communities throughout the Mediterranean region. Laurel is one of the few plants mentioned solely in the New Testament.

Paul the apostle was strongly influenced by Greek culture. He implies the laurel wreath of the Greek games in three epistles(2). The image is especially clear in II Timothy 2: 5 where a “victor’s crown” is mentioned. Similarly, in I Peter 5:4 a non-fading crown is contrasted with a fading, i.e., laurel, crown. James suggests a laurel crown for those who persevere(3).

Laurel is a shrub or small tree with evergreen, leathery leaves. Like its relative sassafras, laurel is perfused with an aromatic oil. Flowers are greenish, small and appear in the spring. Shiny black fleshy fruits are produced in October or November.

The noble image of the evergreen laurel lives on in our language with such words as “laurel, laureate, baccalaureate” and related terms of accomplishment. Today, in an American home the crowning use of the laurel is still for its leaves, known as bay leaves-not for an honor but to give an aromatic flavor to Mediterranean dishes.


2. Philippians 4:1, 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 2 Timothy 2:5, and 2 Timothy 4:8.

3. James 1:12

WREATHS Read the essay by Professor Irwin on the use of wreaths in New Testament times. Wreaths

The Surprising Origin of the ‘Yanny’ or ‘Laurel’ Clip That’s Tearing the Internet Apart

A viral audio clip has everyone asking each other: “Yanny” or “Laurel”? And while the clip is launching many debates, its backstory is actually quite simple.

The viral “Yanny” or “Laurel” clip — where some listeners hear a deep male voice saying “Laurel,” while others hear “Yanny” — has taken the internet by storm and recalls the fervor over the dress, the 2015 viral sensation where some saw the same dress as either white and gold in color or blue and black.

But where did the clip, which has more than 12.1 million views on Twitter, come from? The original “Yanny” or “Laurel” clip is, of all places, from a recording.

Mark Tinkler, founder and chief technology officer of, told TIME the original audio recording comes from an opera singer contracted to record English language words for the website. previously worked with about eight professional opera singers to record every word in English over a six month period because they are fluent in International Phonetic Alphabet, Tinkler said.

In somewhat of a disappointment to the many people who heard “Yanny” in the clip, the actual word recorded in the original clip is laurel, defined as a “wreath worn on the head, usually as a symbol for victory.”

But that doesn’t mean the viral sensation didn’t stump Tinkler, who said he’s heard both “Yanny” and “Laurel” after listening to the original clip on his website. “It’s just as much of a fierce debate in my office as it is anywhere else,” he said.

However, it wasn’t the clip went itself that went viral this week. What most people are listening to is a clip from Roland Szabo, a high school student in Georgia. Szabo, 18, tells TIME he saw a video of the audio clip on a friend’s Instagram story. The friend had gotten the audio recording from a classmate who had looked up the world “laurel” on, only to find that the pronunciation stumped multiple people. After no one could agree on what they were hearing, Szabo put the clip of the poll on Reddit “thinking it was going to get lost through millions of posts.”

“It blew up,” Szabo said. ” I am blown away by the fact that this became such a big deal.”

The poll really kicked off when Cloe Feldman, a YouTube vlogger, posted the clip on Twitter.

Audiologists say people are divided on what they hear because of several cognitive processes that the brain uses to give meaning to sound. Dr. Kevin Franck, the audiology director at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, told TIME that the audio clip in this instance forces the brain to decide quickly about what word it hears.

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According to Tinkler, the changes come depending on what kind of technology a person is using to listen to the clip. When he heard the clip from someone else’s computer, he heard “yanny.” But when he tried the clip again back at his desk, he heard “laurel.”

“It just depends on the audio and the equipment that you’re using,” he said.

Write to Mahita Gajanan at [email protected]

Cherry laurel

Cherry laurel, either of two species of evergreen plants of the genus Prunus, in the rose family (Rosaceae). Cherry laurels are named for their similarity to the unrelated bay laurel (Laurus nobilis, of the family Lauraceae), and they are cultivated as ornamentals, particularly as hedge plants, in temperate regions. The seeds and tissues of both species contain dangerous cyanogenetic glycosides, such as amygdalin, which are capable of releasing hydrogen cyanide gas upon hydrolysis.

Cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)Carlo Bevilacqua—SCALA/Art Resource, New York

Prunus laurocerasus, also known as the English laurel in North America, is a small tree or shrub native to southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia. The plants barely reach heights of more than 18 metres (59 feet), and they bear simple glossy leaves that are arranged alternately along the stem. The white five-petalled flowers form a loose cluster and have a pleasant fragrance. The fruit is a purple-black drupe with a large pit.

Prunus caroliniana, also known as the Carolina cherry laurel or laurel cherry, is endemic to the southeastern United States. A small tree, the plant grows about 5.4 metres (18 feet) tall and has glossy, rather oval or lance-shaped leaves. The small white flowers grow in an elongated cluster 5–12 cm (2–5 inches) long and produce tiny black drupes.

Cherry Laurel Shrubs: Tips On How And When To Plant Cherry Laurel

There’s nothing nearly as pretty in the spring as a blossoming cherry laurel plant. They make excellent additions to just about any landscape and fill the air with intoxicating aromas. Learn more about what is cherry laurel plant and how to care for cherry laurel in your landscape.

What is Cherry Laurel?

Whether you want a lovely specimen tree or an attractive living hedge, cherry laurel shrubs (Prunus laurocerasus) are a beautiful addition to any landscape. Native to the Eastern Mediterranean – the Balkans, Asia Minor and areas bordering the Black Sea, this attractive upright evergreen shrub or small tree grows from 15 to 40 feet in height with a 10 to 35 foot spread.

Hardy to zone 5, according to the USDA plant hardiness map, cherry laurel shrubs produce beautiful and aromatic white flowers in the spring. There are many types of the cherry laurel plant to choose from, ranging from compact shrubs to small tree forms.

When to Plant Cherry Laurel

The best time for when to plant cherry laurel is in the fall. Select high-quality nursery stock with roots that are wrapped in burlap or you can grow them from container plants.

Select a sunny or partly sunny area with fertile, well-drained soil and a soil pH of 6.5 to 7.5.

Be careful when removing the shrub from the container or burlap wrapping so as not to damage the roots. Use only native soil to backfill the shrub-planting hole and do not provide any fertilizer. Water your cherry laurel plant thoroughly to help roots establish.

How to Care for Cherry Laurel

Once a cherry laurel is established, it is very easy to care for. Other than occasional watering, provide a balanced fertilizer in early spring.

This low maintenance beauty can be pruned for size if used as a hedge or left alone with its attractive natural shape. Prune out any dead branches with clean and sharp pruning shears.

Spread a 3-inch layer of compost or mulch around the plant for moisture retention and protection.

Cherry laurels are healthy plants overall but sometimes develop fungal problems. Watch for signs of pests as well, like whitefly or borer infestations, and treat immediately with an appropriate pesticide such as neem oil.



In modern times, most incidents noted with this plant are related to the smell emanating from chipped prunings. The following are typical examples.

Using , a correspondent told me about the time he filled his car with bagged shreddings from his large cherry laurel and set off for the tip. On the way, he could smell almonds and thought ‘Hmmm, cake!’ before realising what he was smelling. He opened all the car windows and suffered no ill effects (other than the disappointment of not having any cake).

A woman employed a contract gardener to remove a tree. He used a chipper to deal with the smaller branches. She asked him to also prune a run of cherry laurel and he said he would but he wouldn’t chip it having, on a previous occasion, almost passed out from the cyanide fumes coming off the chipper.

A tree surgeon talked about smelling almonds when he opened a van full of laurel shreddings.

But, the story of someone passing out while driving a van full of laurel prunings seems to be apocryphal. I have spoken to people who noted the smell associated with cyanide when using a chipper but, since this is an activity performed in the open air, the chances of becoming unwell seem small.

But, until the middle to late 19th century, cherry-laurel water, made by distillation of the leaves, was a common source of hydrocyanic acid, also known as prussic acid. In his ‘Treatise on Poisons’, published in the 1840s, Sir Robert Christison, writing about the various plant sources of hydrocyanic acid says ‘they have been repeatedly taken by accident ; they have often been resorted to for committing suicide ; and they have likewise been employed as the instruments of murder.’

Christison illustrates his point about accidental consumption with the story of a chemist’s servant who drank a large glass of hydrocyanic acid, thinking it was a liqueur, after her master had left it out by mistake. She died within two minutes.

Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel

Perhaps the best known case of murder by cherry-laurel water was that of John Donellan who murdered his brother-in-law, Sir Theodosius Boughton, on 30th August 1780. At his trial on 30th March 1781, most of the evidence against Donellan was circumstantial; he stood to benefit financially from Boughton’s death before the age of 21, he had spent some time expressing the opinion that Boughton was of a weak constitution and would not last long, he had persuaded Boughton to leave his prescribed medication out, where Donellan could access it, to avoid Boughton forgetting to take it, he had distillation equipment in his room supposedly for producing rose water, he poured away the rest of the bottle of medicine as soon as Boughton died and washed it out thoroughly and he attempted to frustrate his own father’s efforts to have the cadaver examined.

But, the evidence which almost certainly convicted him was the bitter almond smell always associated with cyanide. Lady Boughton, Sir Thoedosius’ mother had given him the fatal draught and commented on the bitter almond smell at the time. In court, when asked to smell a liquid, without knowing what it was, she identified the same smell as being cherry-laurel water. One of the doctors, Dr Rattray, who did, eventually, examine the badly decayed remains also commented on the strong smell of bitter almonds on opening the stomach. Bizarrely, this evidence was elicited by cross examination by the defence lawyer who was hoping to show that the body had decomposed too much to provide any reliable information.

The case provides an interesting example of the notion that getting away with murder is easiest if no-one suspects murder to have occurred. As soon as someone notices something odd, as Lady Boughton did, the chance of a death going uninvestigated diminishes.

In his defence, Donellan sought to establish that Sir Theodosius had contracted syphilis as a result of consorting with prostitutes throughout his time at boarding school and that the disease and the mercury treatment he was receiving were the cause of death. It was also said that Mr Powell, an apothecary who seems to have functioned as the family doctor, prescribed Goulard’s Extract, a mixture of lead acetate and lead oxide.

Donellan’s army career had ended after a bribery scandal so his questionable character coupled with the financial motive for ensuring that Sir Theodosius died before reaching 21 made a guilty verdict easy to reach and he was hanged on 2nd April, just four days after his trial began.

In August 2010, this case featured in an episode of the BBC TV programme ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ featuring Alexander Armstrong who is a direct descendant of the brother of the man who inherited Sir Theodosius’ title, that ancestor, in turn, inheriting the title from his brother.

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