Several cultivars of laurel are grown as ornamentals in Oregon, especially varieties that like the moist climate in the western part of the state. Several laurel varities grow wild in the Beaver State, and one introduced invasive species threatens the habitats of native plants.
California laurel, Umbellularia Californica, has aromatic leaves similar to its Greek cousin, bay laurel. The leaves of California laurel can also be used as a seasoning. It is a shrub that can grow into a tree; in a garden it can be pruned to stay from 6 to 8 feet tall. Growing wild in mixed evergreen forests, it likes more than 30 inches of rainfall a year. It grows naturally in Washington, Clackamas and Marion counties south and west of the Portland metropolitan area and in Coos, Curry, Douglas, Josephine and Jackson counties in southwest Oregon.
Portugal laurel, Prunus lusitanica, is a broadleaf evergreen laurel that originated in Portugal and Spain. It is popular as a single plant or as part of a sheared hedge west of the Cascade Mountains. It has glossy, dark-green leaves and produces 5- to 10-inch spikes of white flowers and clusters of tiny red to dark purple berries. Birds like the berries, but humans shouldn't eat them. The U.S. National Park Service considers this an invasive species that should not be allowed outside a garden or yard.
Cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus, also called English laurel, grows well in western Oregon and produces clusters of fragrant white flowers and purple to black berries. It likes well-drained soil. It can tolerate salt spray and shade, and it can be trimmed into a hedge. Cultivars can grow from 3 to 6 feet tall.
Beautiful but Poisonous
Mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, grows from 7 to 15 feet tall and is cultivated as an ornamental in all parts of Oregon. Cultivars of mountain laurel produce spectacular flowers that are white, plus shades of pink, red and burgundy. All parts of this plant contain toxic substances andromedotoxin and arbutin. Eating any part of mountain laurel can be fatal.
Introduced Invasive Laurel
Spurge laurel, Daphne laureola, has spiraling evergreen leaves and produces bitter-fragrant, greenish-yellow flowers in late winter or early spring. Birds and small mammals eat its single-seeded berries that grow in clusters. Splurge laurel grows from 1½ to 4½ feet high. It was originally introduced from Asia and was grown commercially as an ornamental. It is now considered an invasive, noxious weed that contains toxic compounds poisonous to humans; populations have escaped ornamental planting and continue to invade habitats of native plants.
Swamp Laurel Kalmia polifolia is a poisonous narcotic plant found in swampy areas of western Oregon. The leaves, which are astringent, are said to have been used by Native Americans to treat skin diseases and inflammation. Kalmia angustifolia, also called sheep laurel or lamb-kill, is a small shrub found in the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon. It is poisonous to grazing animals.
Swamp laurel is toxic. Its purported uses for medicinal purposes have not been proven by clinical trials and are not sanctioned by the FDA. It should not be used by lay persons to treat any disease or condition.