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The large, glossy leaves of laurel may make a thick, dense hedge, but they have other uses too - as do the big black berries. Let's look first at the shrubs attributes whist growning. Once established, it will withstand being cut back hard to keep it to the required size. I prune mine to ground level every few years. The more I cut it, the faster, denser and stronger it seems to grow. Without this pruning it can grow into a fair sized tree that will allow little, if any, sun to penetrate. A number of varieties can be purchased, and these tend to be slower than my 'wild' specimens, and their variegated (one spotted with yellow is easy to grow and attractive) varieties are particularly pleasing. I have never had a problem with my variegated specimen turning back to plain green either - a problem that I have often encountered with other types of shrub. Buy as compact bush from a garden centre, looking for strong, richly coloured growth. This is not a bush to choose for a low hedge... the leaves are large, and more suitable as a tall, wide, solid screen. Alternatively, they can be grown as an interesting specimen tree. My own tower well above head-height in the winter, offering great weather protection, and are cut back in the early spring to allow the sun to come over them. The broad leaf ed shoots are best cut individually if possible. Shears or hedge trimmers will slice the leaves in half, spoiling the look of the hedge/bush. Growth is easily encouraged at ground level by hard pruning. Laurel grows well in the shade - and its solid form from ground level up ensures that it gives a very high level of protection from weather. The white flowers are attractive and sweetly scented, giving way to large black berries, maybe upto cherry size in a good year. This is where one use comes in. The black berries produce a strong, natural dye, ideal particularly for fleece, if you happen to spin, or other natural fabrics. Sim
mer the fruit and strain, squashing as much colour and juice from the fruit as possible. Stronger colours are achieved by leaving the fruit in the liquid with the fabric or fleece, but it can be hard to seperate the fruit pulp from the fabric! Use a mordant (a metal oxide catalyst used for natural dyeing) to give more vibrant colours and a wider range of shades. For instance, copper sulphate will give mauves, or maybe even a peacock blue if the fruit is luscious; alum will give a rich pink, iron a brownish pink. Refer to a book on natural dyes for details of quantities. A very important point here! Laurel berries smell fantastic when cooking, and look like cherries. Be sure to keep them away from children (and spouse!), because they are poisonous! Use a non-food saucepan if you have one, or clean with great care. Obviously, the juice will stain your hands and clothes. The leaves from laurel are beautiful in flower arrangements, especially at Christmas. Use as a background for large flowers, or as Xmas greenery. They last well in or out of water. If you enjoy making cards, a couple of leaves sewn onto a card are attractive, and the waxy leaves will remain green and pretty as they slowly dry out - no need to press them. Some red berries, artificial, embroidered or cut and stuck from felt will finish the design off - the ultimate in natural look Christmas cards! They also have a pleasant smell when removed from the envelope by the recipient. My only reservations... don't plant near a window. They cut out all light, and as with many evergreens, shed sticky morsels occasionally. The berries fall and stain, so a pathway beside or beneath them can aquire nasty looking blue/black splodges.