You may have heard or read that cherry laurel’s poisonous, and perhaps something about cyanide. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be the right tree or hedging shrub for you.
Yes, cherry laurel is poisonous if ingested, and its sap can be irritating to skin and eyes. It can be lethal to humans and animals if enough is eaten – fatalities in cows, sheep and goats have been recorded. The berries contain lower concentrations of toxins, but are still considered poisonous.
Prunus laurocerasus and its popular cultivars such as ‘Skipkaensis (aka skip or schip laurel), ‘Otto Luyken’, ‘Novita’, ‘Rotundifolia’ and ‘Chestnut hill’ share a common characteristic – they are ‘cyanogenic’ – if chewed or digested, the poison cyanide is released.
Cyanide’s a well-known poison since ancient times. Mixing the leaves with water makes a solution of hydrogen cyanide – which was used as a chemical warfare agent in the First World War. It’s even said that in the first century, the Roman Emperor Nero used cherry laurel to poison the water of his enemies’ wells.
Disclaimer – don’t come to this page if you think you, your kid or your pet might have eaten cherry laurel. Please contact your local emergency service right away. This page is designed for those who’d like to know how safe it is, or otherwise! If that’s you, read on – this is the most complete answer you’ll find online.
How poisonous is cherry laurel? Is it safe?
Cherry laurel is very poisonous if you eat it – according to Toxbase (the toxicology database of the National Poisons Information Service), symptoms of ingestion in humans include:
“Nausea, vomiting, epigastric pain, diarrhoea, salivation, flushed face, headache and shivering may occur. In serious cases, cyanide toxicity may cause tachycardia followed by bradycardia, hypotension, convulsions, metabolic acidosis, coma and respiratory paralysis.”
Many substances are poisonous if given in large enough quantity – including a lot of everyday medicines. So it all depends on how much is ingested. There appears to be no clear data on how many leaves it would take to cause these symptoms in a person. So it reeeally is best not to eat any!
Toxbase recommends that “children and adults who have ingested large amounts, or those who are symptomatic [i.e. feel unwell or have any of the symptoms above], should be referred for medical assessment”.
They state “all parts of the plant are potentially toxic, especially the seeds and leaves… however few cases of substantial poisoning have been reported”.
I was unable to find any published medical literature (such as case reports or case series) of human poisoning from cherry laurel. This doesn’t mean it never happens, but the lack of published data implies that it is rare.
Are laurel berries poisonous?
According to the National Poisons Information Database, the pulp of the fruit is least poisonous part of cherry laurel. However they are still poisonous if eaten in a large enough quantity, or if the pit is eaten along with the fruit.
Toxbase state that “If one or two berries have been accidentally ingested no treatment, other than fluids, is likely to be required.”
There certainly are foragers who claim to enjoy cherry laurel berries. It’s claimed that the berries should be avoided if they taste particularly bitter as this suggests they contain higher quantities of cyanide-producing chemicals. I think this is a bit mad, and I’m going to go with the toxicology folks here and avoid eating them entirely!!
Cherry laurel berries – don’t go thereAl
Is cherry laurel poisonous to dogs or cats?
Cherry laurel is poisonous to dogs and cats if they eat parts of the plant, particularly the leaves and seeds, since hydrogen cyanide is produced by crushing or chewing the leaves. However, compared to herbivorous animals, these pets are unlikely to eat it and the shrub rarely poses any danger.
The US Animal Poison Control Centre states that “When [cherry laurel] is ingested in toxic amounts, clinical signs of dilated pupils, difficulty breathing, inadequate oxygen levels, bright red gums, shock, and death can be seen… if a pet ingests the whole pit without chewing and breaking it open, poisoning is not expected”.
I couldn’t find an actual case report within published veterinary literature of cat or dog poisoning from cherry laurel (though this doesn’t mean it never happens).
Is cherry laurel poisonous to cows, sheep, goats or horses?
Cherry laurel is known to be poisonous to cows, sheep, goats and horses. Cyanide-producing compounds are present in all parts of the plant and can be dangerous if ingested.
A popular border plant for country gardens, livestock in a neighbouring field may decide to chew on it – particularly at times when normal fodder is scarce.
Particular care needs to be taken after pruning. Discarded leaves and branches need to be collected to prevent livestock from eating them.
Cows are susceptible to poisoning from cherry laurel. In 2021, 36 calves that ate cherry laurel died on an Irish farm.
Laurel poisoning is ‘very common’ in goats according to a 2022 article in Livestock. Sudden death is reported as a frequent presenting symptom of farm animal poisoning. A 2013 German veterinary article outlined a case in which two goats succumbed to cherry laurel poisoning.
There’s a case report of 36 sheep that died after eating cherry laurel in the scientific literature – from 1936! Link.
I couldn’t find any confirmed instances of equine poisoning, but this article certainly affirms a risk posed by Prunus species in general (which includes cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus). This article states that horses and pigs may be of lower poisoning risk “since they have acidic stomachs, which inactivate these enzymes, preventing hydrolysis of the glycosides
The article states that cyanogenic glycosides are in all parts of the plant including dormant buds, bark and twigs, but is more concentrated in young new leafy growth and in the seeds within the berries.
Is cherry laurel poisonous to birds?
Birds certainly do eat berries from cherry laurel without apparent ill effects. They appear to be able to digest the pulp of the fruit and discharge the seed without coming to any harm.
I could not find any case reports of birds being harmed by eating laurel berries, and they’re very unlikely to eat any other part of the shrubs.
Is it safe to touch cherry laurel?
According to the UK’s National Poisons Information Service “the sap may be irritant to skin and eyes.” So gardening gloves and eye protection are a good idea if pruning or handling the plant.
How to safely prune cherry laurel
Light pruning of cherry laurel is not considered a hazardous activity, but as the sap is irritant and the waste dangerous if eaten by livestock, you should
- Wearing gardening gloves (and eye protection if using a motorised trimmer) to guard against the irritant effects of the sap
- Pick up tree parts and leaves that are left on the ground and dispose of them in the bin, to prevent them from being eaten by mammals
- Be careful if transporting mulched tree parts in an enclosed space such as a car or van. I’ve read reports of gardeners feeling unwell after doing this – it’s possible that some toxins are getting into the air.
Apparently in Victorian times, kids used to put a butterfly in a jar with a torn cherry laurel leaf. The fumes would kill the butterfly. Cruel as this was, it might mean number 3 above makes some sense…
Is Portuguese laurel poisonous?
Portuguese laurel contains cyanogenic glycosides and is therefore potentially poisonous, as are other members of the Prunus genus.
There’s a lack of available literature about poisoning resulting from this plant, though.
Check out this planting guide if you’re considering it.
If you have Portuguese laurel, have a look at this article that covers some of the things you need to know!
Is bay laurel poisonous?
Bay laurel, Laurus nobilis, is actually a completely different plant family to cherry and Portuguese laurel, which are of the Prunus genus. Its leaves don’t contain dangerous cyanide-producing compounds like the other laurels, so its toxicity is considered low.
Bay laurel is a good alternative hedge plant if you’re concerned about the potential toxicity of cherry or Portuguese laurel.
What are some non-toxic alternatives to cherry laurel?
Some great alternatives include:
Fagus sylvatica (Beech – deciduous, but great autumn colour)
Laurus nobilis (Bay laurel)
Griselinia littoralis (New Zealand broadleaf)
Elaeagnus x ebbingei (Ebbing’s silverberry)
The American Association of Poison Control Centers Available from: https://www.aapcc.org/
The UK National Poisons Information Service, TOXBASE. Available from: https://www.toxbase.org/
Wright B, Bebbington A, Leuty T. Prunus Poisoning in Horses and Other Livestock.
Kennedy A, Brennan A, Mannion C, Sheehan M. Suspected cyanide toxicity in cattle associated with ingestion of laurel-a case report. Irish Veterinary Journal. 2021 Dec;74(1):1-6.
Knight AP, Walter RG. A Guide to Plant Poisoning of Animals in North America. Jackson, Wyoming: Teton NewMedia, 2001:194-197, 222-224.
Stanzilla, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Schmidt B, Goerigk D, Locher L, Jäger K, Bachmann L, Coenen M. Cyanide toxicosis in goats after ingestion of improperly stored green waste from cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus L.)-a case report. Praktische Tierarzt. 2013;94(8):722-31.
Wilson DR, Gordon WS. Laurel poisoning in sheep. Veterinary Record. 1941;53:95-7.
Stanzilla, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Nenad Stojkovic, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Richard Croft / Inquisitive cows, via Wikimedia Commons
Thinh1907, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Beech hedge in Manor Heath Park by Stephen Craven, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Fausta Samaritani, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
K. Thomas, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons