Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Uses of cherry laurel

More usually known simply as laurel, cherry laurel is an evergreen shrub or small tree, native to the Balkans, which has been cultivated in the British Isles since 1629, first recorded in the wild in 1886, and now widely naturalised in woodland and scrubby areas in lowland Britain.

Schoolgirls used its leaves to test their boyfriends’ fidelity. Early in the 1950s it was recorded in south Cambridgeshire:

‘A test for true love was to pick out the sweetheart’s name on a laurel leaf and wear it next to your heart, if the writing turned red, all was well, but if it turned black, the young man loved you not’ [1].

For many years from the 1830s onwards laurel leaves, which emit prussic acid when bruised, were used by butterfly collectors to kill specimens [2]:

‘In the past we used laurel leaves … for putting in tobacco tins for killing and relaxing butterflies for our collections'[3].

Laurel leaves were also used to flavour deserts:

‘One old lady put laurel leaves in milk when she made cornflour moulds – “Gave them a lovely almond flavour” – I never tried it’ [4].

‘According to a New Zealander (November 1996) her mother – also NZ born – insisted that a single laurel leaf would give the egg custard she had detested in the 1940s an almond flavour. The same “dose” for junket at the same time is also attested from Devon’ [5].

Cherry laurel fruits have little flesh and look unappetising. In England they are ignored, or suspected of being poisonous, but it seems as if they were eaten in at least some parts of Ireland:

‘Mary picked the fruit on the laurel bushes … and started to eat them. I always thought laurel was poisonous, but when she was young [in Ireland] they used to eat the fruit’ [6].

Also in Ireland, an ointment made from unsalted butter and juice from laurel leaves was used to treat ringworm[7].

In the 1970s and 80s (and presumably earlier) small branches of laurel were used to decorate greengrocers’ and, less frequently, butchers’ shops at Christmas time [8].

More persistent is the use of wreaths of laurel leaves in commemoration ceremonies. In January each year nurses from St Thomas’s Hospital place such a wreath at the base of the statue of Edith Cavell in Charing Cross Road, London. On the last night of the BBC Promenade Concerts a laurel wreath is placed on a bust of Sir Henry Wood in the Royal Albert Hall, London, and on 21 October, the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, a wreath is placed on the quarter deck of the Victory, in Portsmouth Harbour, Hampshire [9].

1. ‘Horseheath: some recollections of a Cambridge village’, mss by Catherine E. Parsons, 1952, in the Cambridge Record Office.
2. D.E. Allen, The Naturalist in Britain, Harmondsworth, 1978: 146; M.A. Salmon, The Aurelian Legacy, Great Horkesley, 2000: 63.
3. Woodnewton, Northamptonshire, June 1992.
4. Plymouth, January 1993.
5. Union Mills, Isle of Man, March 1997.
6. Streatham, London, August 1993.
7. Glynn, Co. Antrim, February 1992.
8. Pers. obs., London (Chelsea, Streatham, Tooting), December 1983.
9. R. Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-lore, Oxford, 1995: 212.

Images: main, planted, Brompton Cemetery, London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, April 2016; inset, wreaths, made largely of laurel leaves, at the plinth of King Charles I statue, Whitehall, London, 30 January 1995, the anniversary of his execution in 1649.