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The Native Carolina Cherry Laurel Controversy

I recently watched a small flock of hungry cedar waxwings eat what berries (drupes) previous birds missed on my now blooming Carolina cherry laurels (Prunus caroliniana).

Carolina cherry laurel berries seem to be a favorite of berry eating cedar waxwings and robins. This one was resting on a dried Joe pye weed stalk, in front of native coral honeysuckle (lonicera sermpervirens), and next to a birdbath (out of range)

These fast growing, native evergreen trees reach 20-40 feet tall in sun and even partial shade. According to the National Wildlife Federation website prunus species including cherry laurels are ranked second after quercus (oak) tree species as a top host plant - with 317 species of butterflies and moths using them as a caterpillar nursery in my area. The Smithsonian’s lepidoptera index also ranks prunus species as second after quercus as a host plant species.

Carolina cherry laurel is a larval host plant for many butterfly and moth species, a nectar source for early spring pollinators, and a food source for hungry winter and early spring birds.

In native plant circles controversy rages over the value of Carolina cherry laurels even though they do not appear in any state or national invasive species list. This Southeastern native tree is considered problematic by some who believe it it’s too aggressive to let grow outside (or even inside!) the range it would naturally be found, even in the same broader ecoregion.

The EPA has a helpful site to learn more about the ecoregion levels in North American which makes it easy to match the range of native plant species to where you live. The trick is what level to follow and whether to follow this for all native plants or just some.

Planting Carolina cherry laurel is still widely encouraged though -

You can see in this photo I took yesterday how Carolina cherry laurel can offer a native food option for visiting birds who stripped the berries off my Carolina cherry laurel (on the left) and left the berries on my neighbor's non-native, invasive nandina (on the right).

Native Carolina cherry laurel can be a welcome wildlife habitat in residential areas where biodiversity is desperately needed because monoculture lawns and non-native meatballed shrubs rule the landscape. In my increasingly upscale neighborhood where mow and blow crews make yards inhospitable to wildlife and mangled crepe myrtles litter the landscape, I have Carolina cherry laurels screening part of my yard. Since they are growing outside my level ll ecoregion range, I’ve recently added other native trees and shrubs including black cherry (prunus seratona), serviceberry (Amelanchier), and inkeberry (Ilex glabra). In the future when these other native plants offer similar habitat to the mature native Carolina cherry laurels, I may be able to cut back the cherry laurels. Until then flocks of robins, cedar waxwings, and other hungry birds will continue to enjoy the berries, spring pollinators will buzz around the dense, nectar rich flowers, and according to the experts, hundreds of different caterpillars will chomp away on the leaves and offer a vital food source for birds.

Flocks of hungry robins have joyful parties in my Carolina cherry laurel trees!

At a book signing right before the pandemic hit, this issue was on my mind when I asked Doug Tallamy why native Carolina cherry laurel was considered a weed tree by a local native plant expert and a neighborhood park restoration group would list it as an invasive plant along with privet. He scoffed at the question a bit and told me he has it growing on his property and that it may be aggressive but can't be called invasive because it's a native plant. He also said the native prunus are high value keystone host plants and didn't see why they would need to be removed unless to edit them like you would any other native plant seedling (or something to this effect).

One of the concerns with Carolina cherry laurel is the number of seedlings they create. This is also true of other prunus species including black cherry.

On a recent walk in a nearby natural area where it doesn’t look like any restoration has been initiated, two invasive plants that are also intentionally planted in yards around me stood out - privet and English ivy. Carolina cherry laurels are blooming now yet I didn’t see any there.

This was the situation at a local natural area recently. I was enjoying the spring green until I realized it's ALL invasive privet. You can se there are no Carolina cherry laurels in sight!

I also haven’t evidenced my native Carolina cherry laurels outcompeting the hundreds of native plant species in my small rewilded yard in any way. I believe the thick layer of leaves in most places where there aren’t any plants helps.

My imported layer of leaves cuts down on pulling up too many seedlings of any plants where I don't want them - and offers habitat for insects and food for ground foraging birds.

I also think it might be easier for the cherry laurel seedlings to thrive in more traditionally landscaped yards than they do when they have to compete with the dense plant communities I’m creating or assertive native plants like mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), asters, goldenrods (Solidago), and native strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) I let roam.

It's hard for unwanted seedlings to break through the thick mat of grass-leaved goldenrod (euthamia graminifolia) I've set free in difficult areas of my yard where little else grows.

I am 100% okay with replacing Carolina cherry laurels (if they are growing out of their range) with similarly high value and fast growing native prunus species such as black cherry (prunus serotina which btw is also hated for its abundance) or Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia which gets a bad rap for suckering generously).

In the Atlanta metro area Chickasaw plum (prunus angustifolia) is a great replacement for Carolina cherry laurel. It's another high value prunus species without the controversy.

In the meantime, I don’t think it’s helping local ecosystems to conflate native Carolina cherry laurel with other pernicious invasives like privet. Why give landscrapers and homeowners who hire them cover to kill native plants so they can replace them with non-native, ecologically useless plants like crepe myrtle? It seems like advocacy energy would better be spent on education about removing the listed non-native invasive plants infesting our natural areas before focusing on the aggressiveness of a high habitat value native plant growing outside its level l ecoregion – an idea that creates uncertainty and confusion for the average hobby naturalist (like myself) who sincerely just wants to add native plants to our yard without needing a degree in botany.

Privet is enemy number one (or maybe two?) in local natural areas. Until this scourge is removed, it seems a little off message to complain about an aggressive yet valuable habitat native plant like Carolina cherry laurel.

Notes:

  • I didn’t want to make the situation even more confusing by mentioning English laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), a non-native species from southwest Asia and southeast Europe that is invasive in the Northwest.

  • There are no affiliate links in this blog. Please click the highlighted text throughout the posts for links to details, explanations, references, worthy organizations or businesses, or examples that might be helpful.

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