This article has been checked for horticultural accuracy by Oliver Parsons.


Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica) is a beautiful evergreen shrub or small tree native to Portugal, Spain and western France. It's also known as the Portugal laurel or cherry bay, and is an excellent choice for hedges due to its attractive foliage and ability to grow well in a variety of conditions. It has glossy, narrow, pointed leaves that grow on maroon stems, which develop their colouration as they mature. Small, fragrant white flowers appear in summer, which turn into small, shiny red fruits that mature to a deep purple-black in autumn.

Portuguese laurel is similar to cherry laurel but its leaves are smaller and it has a more compact habit. Both are popular choices for garden hedges, but Portuguese laurel is often favoured due to its denser foliage and tolerance of a wider range of soils.

Portuguese laurel has some benefits for wildlife, providing nesting habitats for birds, flowers for pollinators and berries for birds and small mammals.

It’s important to note that Portuguese laurel leaves and seeds contain toxic compounds and should not be ingested by humans or pets.

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How to grow a Portuguese laurel hedge

Consider using Portuguese laurel for hedges in sunny or partly shaded spots with moist but well drained soils. Water regularly, especially during dry spells, until established. Trim regularly to keep it in shape.

Where to grow a Portuguese laurel hedge

Pleached Portuguese laurel hedge. Getty Images
Pleached Portuguese laurel hedge as background planting for a garden border. Getty Images

Portuguese laurel can be grown in most areas of the UK, except in extremely cold or exposed locations. The plant is not considered invasive, but allow enough space for it to grow and spread. Avoid planting it very close to buildings or structures where its roots could cause damage.

Regular trimming will encourage a good, dense hedge at the size you want - without this the plant will naturally grow to a shape and height more akin to a tree, with roots to match.

How to plant a Portuguese laurel hedge

Container-grown plants can be planted at any time of the year with good results (although avoid frozen ground). Bare-root plants should be planted from November to March when dormant but, again, avoid hard, frosty ground.

When planting a Portuguese laurel hedge, space plants about 60cm apart.

If your soil is particularly claggy, or sandy and free-draining, it may be worth improving the soil by first adding a little organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure to the general area. Then dig a hole slightly larger than the rootball of the plant, place the plant in the hole, backfill with soil and then firm in well with your heel. Water thoroughly and finish by apply a thick layer of mulch around the base of the plant to retain moisture, improve fertility and suppress weed growth. It's important to keep the plants moist until established.

How to care for Portuguese laurel

Portuguese laurel flowers. Getty Images
Portuguese laurel flowers. Getty Images

Portuguese laurel's shallow roots can dry out quickly, so water the young plants regularly during dry spells and mulch around the base of plants each year to help the soil to retain moisture. However, it's also important not to let the soil become waterlogged.

A relatively fast-growing plant, Portuguese laurel can form a hedge in as little as two to three years. Prune it regularly to keep it in shape, removing any dead or diseased branches and trimming back the tips.

How to prune Portuguese laurel

The best time to prune or trim Portuguese laurel is in late spring or early summer, giving the resultant new growth time to ripen before winter. However, bear in mind that birds may be nesting in the hedge so check it very thoroughly first. If birds' nests are present then delay the job until September, when the nests should be empty.

If the plant has become overgrown or misshapen it can be hard pruned to old wood in late winter or early spring.

Always use sharp, clean tools, and wear gloves and protective clothing. Note also that the leaves, branches and fruits contain toxic compounds that can cause skin irritation or respiratory issues. Avoid burning Portuguese laurel trimmings, as the smoke can be toxic. Instead, dispose of the trimmings in a safe and responsible manner, such as through home composting or your green waste collection.

How to propagate Portuguese laurel

Portuguese laurel berries. Getty Images
Portuguese laurel berries. Getty Images

Portuguese laurel is best propagated from cuttings, but it can also be raised from seed.

Take softwood cuttings in early summer and root them in a mixture of perlite and gritty cuttings compost.

To propagate Portuguese laurel from seed, collect berries in autumn, remove the fleshy outer layer and plant the seeds in a free-draining soil mixture. Keep these outside in a cold frame throughout winter, as they need a period of cold (known as 'stratification') for the seeds to germinate. Be patient though, as the seeds can take 18 months to germinate.

Pests and diseases

  • Shot hole disease is a fungal disease which appears as small holes in the leaves and can cause defoliation if left untreated. To prevent it, avoid overhead watering and prune out and destroy infected branches
  • Powdery mildew is a fungal disease which causes a white, powdery coating on leaves. Try making an organic fungicide by blending two bulbs of garlic with one litre of water and then, after letting it steep, straining the mixture. Spray it regularly on the affected parts of the plant
  • Vine weevil make notches on leaf edges and their larvae eat plant roots, causing wilting or stunted growth. They can be eradicated using nematodes as a biological control on the larval stage from March to May and August to November
  • Leaf-mining moths lay their eggs on the leaves of plants, and their larvae tunnel into the leaves, causing damage and leaving a visible trail of feeding marks or tunnels. These rarely harm the plant but you can remove and destroy affected leaves if you prefer
  • Leaf spot is a fungal disease that causes brown spots on the leaves and can lead to defoliation. To prevent it, avoid overhead watering and prune out and destroy infected branches

Advice on buying Portuguese laurel

  • Always choose healthy, disease-free specimens from a reputable supplier. Look for plants with full, glossy foliage and sturdy stems
  • If possible, select plants that have been grown in the UK. If buying plants grown overseas make sure they have proper plant passports as part of their packaging, as this should ensure they have been properly vetted against plant pathogens currently not prevalent in the UK

Where to buy Portuguese laurel

Portuguese laurel varieties

Prunus lusitanica – the species plant, a large evergreen shrub or small tree with shiny, dark green leaves on dark-red stems. Small white flowers in summer followed by red-purple fruits. Height x Spread: 15m x 10m

Prunus lusitanica ‘Angustifolia’ – a more compact and elegant form with narrower leaves and smaller flowers and fruits. H x S: 10m x 8m

Prunus lusitanica ‘Variegata’ – a striking variety with creamy-white margins on the leaves. H x S: 8m x 6m


Frequently asked questions

Help! My Portuguese laurel leaves are turning yellow and dropping!

Dull, drooping or yellowing leaves all suggest that the soil is too dry and that you need to water the plants more regularly. In summer, during dry weather, water weekly to ensure the soil stays moist. Adding a liquid application of seaweed feed will also help keep the plants in top condition.