Portuguese laurel: How to cut it back

Monday, March 5, 2012
9:20 AM

Question: Each winter I give our Portuguese laurel a haircut to retain its bowl shape. However it is progressively getting wider and higher. Can I give it a more radical prune to reduce its overall dimensions, without causing serious problems? (M Rayner, Cringleford)

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The hardy Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica) is perfect for hedging and topiary. The combination of evergreen leaves and rhubarb-red stems makes the Portuguese laurel a very attractive alternative to the more common cherry laurel. Portuguese laurel is ideal for clipping into various shapes such as spheres, ovals and blocks; these can easily be formed by cutting roughly to shape with shears three times a year in February, July and October. This promotes new growth and these softly topiarised shapes contrast well with the more sharply clipped, smaller-leaved box and holly trees. Trimming three times a year would be far too savage for most plants, but Portuguese laurel is very adaptable. Some specimens in badly neglected gardens that are more than 100 years old have been cut hard back to stumps to rejuvenate them and they quickly recover.

This member of the cherry family is very hardy despite being a native of Portugal and Spain. It was introduced into Britain from Madeira via Portugal in 1648 during the reign of Charles I. The less-hardy cherry laurel (P. laurocerasus) had already arrived from Constantinople in 1576 and for many years both were treated as tender plants and often grown in orangeries. Both have since proved to be hardy, although P. lusitanica is the hardier of the two. The Portuguese laurel is also a better looking plant, with smaller, neatly serrated, softer green leaves that resemble bay (Laurus nobilis). So it makes a very good alternative for gardeners in cold areas who find bay impossible to grow outdoors.

The deep pink stems, which look so handsome in winter light, are encouraged by regular clipping. Left to its own devices, the Portuguese laurel will reach 20 metres.

It produces hawthorn-scented white flowers in June. The numerous narrow flower spikes rise up like elegant candles and they are often cut for vases. Pointed red berries follow and turn purple with age. These are highly favoured by birds.

The Victorians, who loved the privacy of hedges, embraced both Portuguese and cherry laurel as avidly as lace curtains. Both have the AGM. But there are also two distinct forms of Portuguese laurel worth growing: P. lusitanica subsp. azorica has larger, thicker, brighter leaves and is more shrub than tree. ‘Myrtifolia’ (1892) has darker leaves, forms a smaller, conical tree and is thought by some to be better for finely honed topiary. The Portuguese laurel is slower growing than cherry laurel and can be grown in shade or sun, but prefers light shade. However, if you want it as a winter feature, plant it in a more open position in retentive soil that doesn’t get too wet in winter.

This laurel can also be used as a hedge: Plant 18in-24in apart and clip every June. Planted small it can tolerate dry shade. It does not enjoy windy, exposed positions.