Poet’s Laurel is an evergreen heirloom hardy shrub from the Colonial period bearing red-orange berries.
If you are looking for a shade plant that is more unusual than the average hosta or fern, consider the Alexandrian or Poet’s Laurel.
Legend says it may have been the plant used as a crowning wreath on the heads of exemplary orators, athletes and poets in Greek and Roman times.
And it has many pluses for the gardener.
It “is a unique, long-lived, evergreen shrub with few if any cultural problems and deserves wider use,” says Dr. Bill Welch, professor and extension horticulturist at Texas A&M University.
It is drought-tolerant after establishment and pest-free. It works in beds or containers and is excellent for the landscape with its shiny evergreen foliage and marble-sized red-orange berries.
Introduced into cultivation from Northern Iran in 1713, the plant was revered in America’s Colonial period and became popular in Southern gardens. A planting flanks the tree-shaded gates at the Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
I became familiar with the plant in the garden of Tulsa landscape designer Steve Williams. He purchased a plant 11 years ago when visiting the nursery at Colonial Williamsburg. About six years ago, I also planted some.
Both our plantings are semi-mature and now bear 1/4-inch diameter red-orange fruits in November. These endure until spring unless eaten by birds or wildlife.
Alexandrian or Poet’s Laurel’s botanical name is Danae racemosa (synonym for Ruscus racemosa).
In Greek mythology, Danae was the daughter of Acrisius, King of Agros. He was warned Danae would bear a son who would kill him. Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, discovered her and fathered her son Perseus.
In fear, King Acrisius put his daughter and grandson in a wooden box and cast them into the sea. Perseus escaped, matured and accidently killed his grandfather King Acrisius when practicing with the discus.
Poet’s Laurel is closely related to asparagus, and its new growth appears all at once and looks like asparagus spears. Its maximum height is 36 inches tall and as wide, with stems growing in an upward arching habit away from the plant’s crown.
Poet’s Laurel grows and spreads slowly into larger clumps by rhizomes, but it is not invasive. The lance-like evergreen foliage is a glossy emerald green of 4-inch long leaves. But the flowers are small and insignificant.
Plant this evergreen in partial or full shade because sun will discolor the foliage. It likes a moist, well-drained soil. Neither Williams nor I have experienced any winter damage on our plants over the years.
The stems and foliage make beautiful arrangements. In fact, it is a choice green material used by florists. A few years ago, I saw Poet’s Laurel as greenery decoration in a Reasor’s deli case. At first I thought it was plastic, but the attendant let me examine it. That greenery lasted and looked fresh for weeks and weeks in the display.
But don’t look for it at a big box store.
To obtain this plant, you may need to ask your local nursery to order it, or purchase it yourself.
Where to order Poet’s Laurel
Plant Delight’s Nursery, Raleigh, North Carolina, 919-772-4794, www.plantdelights.com; Niche Gardens, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 919-967-0078, www.nichegardens.com; Woodlanders, Aiken, South Carolina, 803-648-7522, www.woodlanders.net.
Note: Woodlanders only ships from October through March.