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Plant of the Week: Laurel, Poet's or Alexandrian

Alexandrian Laurel or Poet’s Laurel
Latin: Danae racemosa

Laurel, Poet's or Alexanderian -- The Alexandrian Laurel is a slow growing evergreen shrub that shade gardeners should consider checking out. (Image courtesy Gerald Klingaman)

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Back in 1999 while I was teaching at the University of Arkansas here in Fayetteville, I had the occasion to establish a teaching garden around the Plant Science building. This fall I filled in teaching the woody plant identification class and spotted a new addition to the garden, the Alexandrian Laurel or Poet’s Laurel (Danae racemosa).

This graceful, evergreen, rhizomatous shrub grows 3 feet in height with graceful arching canes arising from the ground that give the plant a wingspan of 4 to 5 feet. It is a monocot and was long considered one of the multitudinous lilies, but is now included in the asparagus family.

Instead of true leaves it has flattened branches called phylloclades that function as leaves. These modified leaf like stems are bright, shiny green and up 3 to 4 inches long and 1.5-inch wide and arranged alternately along the branch.

Small, inconspicuous yellow-green flowers are produced in late spring from the “leaf” axils. In the fall they are followed with orange-red, marble sized berries in clusters of two to five per panicle.

The berries persist into the winter before becoming unattractive. The Alexandrian laurel has the general look of butcher’s broom (Ruscus) and was so classified by Linnaeus, but since the 1780s has been classified in a monotypic genus because of the way the flowers are produced in axillary panicles.

Alexandrian laurel is uncommon in American gardens even though it was introduced in England in 1713. According to Alice Coats, “in the 1820s, nothing was more common in shrubberies and rustic gardens…” but it seems to have not had staying power or much impact on visiting American gardeners for it seems to have been slow to immigrate. This ho-hum attitude was probably because the cool, short summers of northern Europe were too cool for Alexandrian laurel to set fruit. And the fruit are the truly outstanding feature of the plant.

Alexandrian laurel’s greatest occurrence in the wild is on the southern edge of the Caspian Sea in Iran but a disjunct population is also found on the northeastern end of the Mediterranean in Syria. In the Polish Chronology of Trees and Shrubs of Southwest Asia it is described as being “mesophilous shrub, thermophilous, and shade-requiring.” Translated, this means it needs shade, moderate temperatures but warm conditions to complete its reproductive cycle. For gardeners that means it is ideally suited to the southeastern states where it is hardy from zones 6 to 9. During cold winters in zone 6 it may freeze back to the ground, but it will return from the rhizomes.

The Latin name is taken from Greek mythology – Danae being the daughter of Acrisus who was King of Argos. Hers is a classic Greek tale of woe, but the plant did figure significantly into Grecian society. Many statures and frescoes from the Mediterranean region show orators, poets and athletes wearing a garland of leaves. The leaves were made from woven stems of this plant.

Alexandrian laurel is a good woodland plant that will provide evergreen color in even deep shade. It is best in well-drained loamy soils that are moderately moist. However, once established, the plant will tolerate dry shade, but it should be watered if the dry conditions last longer than 3 or 4 weeks. It is slow growing and the foliage will yellow and burn if exposed to direct sunlight. Its canes last three years and then die so periodic stem removal back to the ground is needed to keep the plant tidy. Propagation is by springtime division or slowly by seed. It makes an excellent cut foliage plant for flower arrangements and is sometimes seen offered for sale as cut greenery.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Retired Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - December 5, 2013