November 29, 2008

My Favorite Evergreen Shrub: Otto Luyken Laurel

Above is a picture of one of my favorite shrubs: Prunus laurocerasus 'Otto Luyken.'  In my zone 5 landscape with slightly alkaline soil, there are relatively few choices for broad-leaved evergreen shrubs. Rhododendrons, azaelas, pieris and other acid-loving shrubs look sickly here without extensive soil amendment and maintenance. Many others just can't handle the cold. Otto is hardier than other laurels, and it makes a nice choice for the evergreen backbone of a bed or for a low hedge.
Otto is a mid-sized shrub - about 3-4 feet tall by 5-6 feet wide at maturity. The flowers aren't especially pretty - clusters of tiny white flowers form white 'candles' on the shrub in spring and (less heavily) in fall. But I don't grow it for the flowers. In fact, I kind of wish it didn't flower. I am drawn to this shrub for the glossy, dark green leaves that give it a polished appearance all year long. I love elegant plants, and this one fits the bill.

Above you can see a laurel nestled into the landscape on the left.  Its dark leaves are a nice contrast to the lighter greens around it.  Other details on this plant: it's rated a 6 on the OPALS scale (an allergy scale with 10 as the worst). That's a so-so rating, considering that it's a shrub, not a tree.
Monrovia rates Otto as hardy for zones 6-9, but it's growing just fine all around my zone 5b neighborhood (click the link for more photos and info from Monrovia's site). After a particularly bad winter we might all be pruning some dead chunks out, but that's OK with me. One note for growing broad-leaved evergreens at the edge of their hardiness: these plants continue to lose water through their wide leaves even in the winter, but when the ground freezes the roots can't absorb water. Drying wind exacerbates the problem, so they'll do best in a protected site. Young plants that struggle in the winter while their rootball is small might do much better once the roots grow deeper, into the nonfrozen soil.
Added May 28, 2014 - After a couple of harsh winters, my laurels died almost to the ground and had to be pruned severely.  I noticed that the one I had purchased from Monrovia had very little browning compared to the less expensive shrubs I had bought at a big box store.  I dug up a couple of those other ones and replaced them with Monrovia versions.  Even though the tags say the same name, it appears the Monrovia really does use superior propagating stock.  I would not recommend this shrub to my neighbors unless they bought the Monrovia version. 
Otto hasn't had any insect problems for me, but I wonder if it would suffer from scale in milder climates.
When my shrubs get larger, I plan to use the foliage in flower arrangements.
I purchased my shrubs in 2007 from Home Depot at $5 for a 1 gallon-sized pot. They were tiny but affordable. I needed one more and couldn't find it at HD last summer, so I splurged and bought a 2-gallon size for $25 (a Monrovia version) at the local nursery. It's much larger and prettier.
Since I can't grow pittosporum and all the other broad-leaved evergreens I loved in California, I'm especially grateful for dear Otto. If you live in zone 5b to 9, you might consider this shrub for your yard as well.

Added May 28, 2014 - Other broad-leaved evergreen shrubs in my yard now include 'Green Tower,' 'Green Mountain,' 'Green Velvet,' and 'Wee Willie' boxwoods.  I also have 'Scallywag' and 'Little Rascal' hollies, which turn purple in winter and have lovely dark green leaves in summer.  The hollies are a little prickly, unfortunately.  I planted three 'Helsinki University' rhododendrons in the protected east part of my backyard and they were unfazed by our -5 degree winter last year.  Supposedly they are hardy down to zone 3, and I just mixed peat moss into the soil and use acidic fertilizer on them to keep them happy.


  1. Great blog, keep up the good work!

  2. Hi VW, Came over from Blotanical.I hope you are enjoying the good gardeners there.

    I live in Florida (like lets plant :-)so my garden is probably more like your previous Zone 9 in California.

    It's nice to have favorite evergreens... the kind that perform well for you all year long. Like you, I like to think about using my greenery in my fresh flower arrangements.

    I'll be back to see how things are going here.

  3. Just bought my first Otto. We live in Norway and winter is harsh!! So I just bought one to test thru next year. If it survives I'll plant 20 more!!

  4. Hi, I found your site while searching for Otto Luyken and what to plant in front of it. We have five in our front garden and are trying to figure out what would be good companion plants in front of them...any suggestions? We're hoping for another evergreen plant that will be a bit smaller than the OL. We get morning sun and afternoon shade in summer; slmost no direct sun in winter (north facing garden).


  5. Ryan - The dark leaves of Otto Luyken make a great backdrop for many colors - my friend planted knockout roses in front and the blooms really pop out. The lighter green leaves of hardy boxwoods like 'Green Velvet' or the new 'North Star' would look nice in front. Both of those are in the 3-4' range, I think, though they can be clipped to a smaller size. The steel blue of 'Blue Star' juniper (18" tall, 3-5' wide) would be lovely, though it probably needs some sun all year to do its best. You could do some heucheras - many of them are somewhat evergreen, they can handle a north exposure, and their range of leaf-colors is fantastic. Or hellebores (18" to 2' tall and wide) would be happy there and are evergreen, though their mid-green leaves wouldn't contrast too much, but you'd enjoy their flowers in late winter. I hope those ideas help!

  6. in front of your laurel, you should plant "firepower nandinas".

  7. Once Otto luykens have contracted scale, will they survive?

    1. Scale can be controlled with systemic insecticide. I try to avoid pesticides as much as possible, but sometimes that's the best option to save the plant. If you spray horticultural oil right when the baby scale insects are migrating along the branches (in late spring/early summer), you can kill many of them without using toxic chemicals. But you have to get the timing just right.


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