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).
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.
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.
Planting Carolina cherry laurel is still widely encouraged though -
The New Hope Audubon Society lists Carolina cherry laurel as a top keystone plant for birds in the North Carolina Piedmont.
The City of Richmond includes Carolina cherry laurel as one of the approved plant species in their Urban Design Guidelines.
The Virginia DWR lists Carolina cherry laurel as an native alternative to invasive privet.
The Collin County Native Plant Society of Texas even makes a case for removing privet where it grows and planting native Cherry laurel in the home landscape as part of a plan to stop privet’s proliferation.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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