Skip laurel: leaf, growth and pest problems (& revival tips)

skip laurel flowers

Skip laurel is also known as Schip or Schipka laurel. It’s increasing in popularity as a hedge plant, because it’s fast-growing and dense, and little disturbs it – this is one that almost anyone can grow successfully and it looks great.

However, there are a number of issues that you NEED to know about. Hedges need a little bit of attention, or you can easily end up with some of the trees growing poorly, turning yellow or brown, dropping leaves… believe me, I’ve seen this happen.

A little knowledge goes a long way with this shrub. What are the main problems with skip laurel?

Skip laurels are generally easy to grow provided they are regularly watered, but can struggle in poorly-drained soil, chalk or heavy clay. Yellow or brown leaf discoloration result from transplantation stress or windburn. Their most significant pests are peach tree borer and white prunicola scale.

Having grown in experience and knowledge, I’d love to share everything I’ve learned about skip laurel. I always go for the scientific resources to double-check what I write, so you can be confident you’re getting accurate, reliable information from a hands-on gardener who knows his stuff. Read on!

First of all, there can be some confusion about what skip laurel is and how it differs from other laurels.

What is skip laurel?

Schipka Skip Cherry Laurel in nursery
Skip aka schip or schipa laurel is a very popular cultivar of cherry laurel

Skip laurel, Prunus laurocerasus ‘Schipkaensis’, is a popular type (cultivar) of cherry or English laurel that’s known to be tolerant to shade and cold-hardy. While it grows just as quickly (24 inches per year), it doesn’t get as tall or wide as cherry laurel and is thus easier to maintain.

The name ‘skip laurel’ comes from its origins, apparently having been found in Bulgaria near the high Shipka pass, which goes through the Balkan mountains. So it’s the same species as cherry laurel, but has its own characteristics that warrant a separate cultivar name.

Hence it’s also called Schipka or Schip laurel (I can only assume the Shipka pass must have originally been spelled Schipka and lost the c along the way!).

Compared to cherry laurel, the leaves are slightly thinner and narrower, and the berries are perhaps a deeper and darker blackish-purple.

Skip laurel usually grows to around 10 feet tall and 5 to 7 feet wide if left unchecked, while standard cherry laurel can easily reach 20-30 feet tall and 25-30 feet wide – which is much too big for any hedge! So skip laurel is much easier to control and cheaper to maintain. It shares cherry laurel’s characteristic hardiness and ability to grow in almost any soil, so choosing skip laurel is win-win.

Apart from skip laurel, the best known cultivar of cherry laurel is probably ‘Otto Luyken’, which is really a dwarf form that grows only to about 4 feet tall.

skip laurel flowers berries
Spring flowers give way to berries that ripen into blackish-purple

My skip laurel has yellow or brown leaves – is it normal?

So some of the leaves are turning yellow or brown, or even dropping off. Why?

It depends how many and from which part of the plant they’re on. All evergreens lose a few leaves on a yearly basis – and before they drop off they tend to turn yellow or brown, of course.

Browning or yellowing of a small number of skip laurel leaves can occur in late summer or autumn. This should be limited to the older, more shaded leaves in the interior or lower parts of the shrub. Excessive or untimely color change or leaf loss indicates that the shrub is under stress.

Those that turn yellow aren’t going to turn green again and will be shed.

Some clues that something might be wrong:

  • You have a row of skip laurel and only some have yellowing leaves, while the others look green
  • The shrub or hedge isn’t putting on the expected 24 inches per year.
  • You’ve got yellow or brown leaves on the outside of the shrub, or lots are affected (it should only be a few or the lowest or interior leaves each year)
  • The leaves are turning yellow or brown, curling or falling in winter or spring.

My skip laurel isn’t growing well

So what conditions, specifically, are stressful to skip laurel?

Recent planting

If you planted your skip laurel in the past 3 years (but particularly if it was in the last year!) it may be that the transplanting itself was the stressful event that’s affecting your skip laurel’s growth, making it look sickly or making its leaves turn yellow.

Moving a root system from one environment to another is stressful for young shrubs. The new soil will have different availability of water and nutrients and a different pH, and they take a little damage in the planting process. For a period of time, the roots can stop taking up water properly.

At its most extreme, this is called ‘transplant shock’ and results in loss of significant foliage.

The best time to plant skip laurel is in the autumn or winter, when the soil is cool and moist and the roots have time to get established before the next growing season. However… we all enjoy gardening (and landscapers are most busy) in the summer, so many laurel hedges are planted then instead! As the struggling roots will dry out more quickly in summer, this increases the risk of transplantation shock drastically.

The solution is frequent watering. Giving the roots plenty of moisture gives them time to get over transplantation stress.

Skip laurel and water requirements

How to water skip laurel

Skip laurel will grow in many conditions, and will tolerate dry soil for periods – but watering your hedge is basically a must, or they won’t grow and will look poor.

This is especially important when they’re young and recently planted.

You can start off by getting a feel for the soil under your skip laurel. Dig your finger in, or carefully make an opening with a trowel, 4 inches or so down. If the soil feels rather dry here, it’s time to water. If it feels moist, you’re good for now.

But on average I’d recommend a couple of buckets of water every 2-3 days for a young hedge in summer, then weekly in autumn (and spring) unless there’s been good rainfall. If there are dry weeks in winter, I’d give them each a bucket then as well.

The easiest way, however, is to use a ‘soaker hose‘ – essentially a watering hose that is porous, leaking water along its length. These can be laid along the length of the hedge (covered with a bit of mulch for tidiness) and connected to a timer. Usually 15-20 minutes a day during the summer is perfect.

soaker hose for hedge
Soaker hose along cherry laurel

The importance of mulch

It’s easy and hugely beneficial to lay mulch, such as bark chippings, on the ground under your laurel. This actually helps make your watering more effective. How?

  • It suppressing weed and grass growth, reducing competition for water (and nutrients)
  • It prevents run-off and helps water percolate down into the soil
  • It insulates the roots against temperature changes, and reduces evaporation from the soil

It also looks good and furthermore as it decomposes it adds organic matter to the soil, feeding your skip laurel.

Apply a little more every spring. There should be a 3-4 inch thick layer covering the soil. Just avoid piling it up against the stem or trunk of your skip laurel, where it can contribute to rot and encourage borer infestations – leave a slight divot in the mulch so it isn’t touching bark.

Skip laurel and poorly drained soil?

On the other hand, skip laurels don’t like ‘wet feet’. They’re more tolerant of waterlogged soil than many hedge trees (particularly yew) but poorly-drained soil is a cause of poor growth, prematurely and excessively yellowing leaves and a sickly, wilted appearance in skip laurel.

Suspect this problem if:

  • Your skip laurels are planted at a low point of your yard, in the direction that rainwater runs towards
  • The nearby grass is marshy or you see puddles overlying the roots

Before watering, it’s a good idea to feel the soil under your laurel. If it feels boggy or sodden, avoid watering until the top layer has dried out again.

This problem arises more frequently in yards that have clay soil types, particularly when, at the time of planting, a simple bucket-shaped hole was dug that each skip laurel was plonked into (without sufficient loosening of the surrounding soil). This can function somewhat as an underground basin that water collects in, drowning the roots.

Skip laurel, wind exposure and windburn

Skip laurels are evergreen, which means their leaves are susceptible to the drying effects of wind over the winter. This, particularly when the ground freezes, exposes the trees to windburn or ‘winter injury’. This is fairly common in skip laurels. The first thing I’ll do is check which direction the prevailing wind comes from.

Windburn causes yellow or brown leaf tips that are worse on the side of the skip laurel that’s exposed to the wind. It’s usually noticeable in late winter or early spring and gives the leaves a scorched look.

If your skip laurel gets exposed to salt – from a road or driveway – this greatly increases the risk of winter injury.

When the ground freezes the problem gets a lot worse, as the roots can’t take up water to replace that which evaporates from the leaves in windy winter weather.

Preventing windburn in skip laurels

There are 4 straightforward ways to prevent windburn or winter injury in skip laurels.

1. Water your skip laurel through the winter. People assume that soil stays damp through winter, but it easily dries out when there’s a dry week and some strong airflow (especially in hedges which are often meant to function as a barrier to wind).

As long as the temperature’s safely above freezing, giving the skip laurels a deep watering once a month may be all it takes to prevent windburn, as the roots will have adequate water to replace that which evaporates from the leaves in strong winds.

2. Mulch under your skip laurels. I’ve covered this extensively above already. Mulch insulates the ground, preventing freezing, and is ideal for allowing rainwater to permeate down into the soil instead of simply running off. It stops soil from drying out.

3. Erect some basic wind protection. If your skip laurels are still young, consider windbreak netting material, which you can buy online – if you hammer in some posts along your hedge, it’s easy to stretch it along them (on the side that gets the wind obviously). Some put this in as standard whenever planting a skip or cherry laurel hedge, and keep it on until the third year or so.

4. Consider spraying on anti-desiccant in early-mid winter. These sprays can be bought online. They’re sprayed onto the foliage to prevent drying (as the name suggests). Some arborists consider them an essential part of evergreen care in winter. Thorough spraying is needed – don’t forget underneath the leaves!

Skip laurel and soil requirements

Thankfully, skip laurel’s remarkably tolerant to a good range of soil conditions. That includes a good range of pH levels – from acidic to mildly alkaline (pH 4.5-7.5 or so) which will cover the vast majority of yards. You can test your own soil pH using a Rapitest kit.

Cherry laurel species don’t grow well in chalky soil, though. While they’ll usually survive, they may not put on the expected 2 feet per year. The closely related Portuguese laurel is often used as an alternative on chalky sites (link to the article if you’d like to know more about this option, which many think is superior for some other reasons also).

It will tolerate sandy and clay soils, but doesn’t thrive in poorly drained, waterlogged soil (and heavy clay soil can contribute to that, particularly if planted incorrectly, as mentioned above).

Will skip laurel grow in shade?

Skip laurels do best in either partial shade or in full sun, but they do grow in full shade.

They’re a particularly tolerant cultivar of cherry laurel when it comes to shade! So it’s unlikely that shade issues are causing problems in your cherry laurel.

Bark damage

If you have one or two skip laurels that aren’t growing well, it’s worth having a quick inspection of the bark close to the ground to check for any damage caused by nibbling animals or a stray lawnmower or weed trimmer.

If you see oozing sap at the lowest 12 inches of the trunk of any of your skip laurels, that could indicate peach tree borer infestation – more on that below.

For more information on what to do when a tree or shrub sustains bark damage, and how to help it, have a look at my article here.

Thankfully, skip laurels are largely ignored by deer!

Incorrect planting

Skip laurels are often planted too deep – in fact, this is a problem of endemic proportions for both trees and shrubs!

When a skip laurel is planted, it should be possible to see the root flare – the widening of the trunk just before it joins the roots – above the ground. This is what you’ll see when trees propagate naturally.

Often, the root flare is buried, and you have a lollipop-stick look as the narrow part of the trunk stick outs of the soil.

Shrubs planted like this don’t root properly – or at least will take longer to become established. If it’s very deep, you may see excessive and untimely leaf yellowing and poor growth (skip laurel should grow 2 feet per year).

It is possible to gently scrape away a lot of the surface soil and re-expose the root flare, which is probably the best way to deal with it after the fact.

Skip laurel pests and diseases

Skip laurel’s fairly resistant to most pests and diseases but there are some that you should certainly have an awareness of.

Powdery mildew

Skip laurels are moderately prone to powdery mildew infection, which is a fungal ailment (ascomycete species) causing dusty white coating over the leaves. You may notice this on just a few leaves here and there. It doesn’t look great, but fortunately it’s rare for it to cause your skip laurel much trouble in terms of its growth and overall health.

There are some commercial fungicides available for powdery mildew – one that I use is Provanto Fungus Fighter Plus. Just be careful to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

I’d recommend pruning off the affected leaves if the appearance bothers you – it also might prevent further spread. Just make sure you clean your pruners between cuts (with bleach or alcohol hand sanitizer) so you don’t spread the infection to other parts.

You shouldn’t leave pruned parts on the ground, where spores can spread from them – it should all go in the trash.

‘Shot hole’ infections

These infections are common in most laurel species including cherry laurel and Portuguese laurel. It causes brown spots on their leaves, which eventually disintegrate leaving a circular hole – so some of the leaves will look like someone has shot a hole through them with a pellet gun.

They’re caused by a range of pathogens – bacterial (particularly Pseudomonas syringae) and fungal (including Wilsonomyces carpophilus) so spray treatment isn’t so straightforward. It’s another minor disease that won’t kill the skip laurel or stunt its growth – so you can leave well alone or prune out the affected leaves as with powdery mildew above.

skip schip laurel in bloom with shot hole in leaves
‘Shot hole’ can be seen easily on the leaves of this skip laurel.

Peach tree borer

This one’s a bit more serious, and is a bane to many Prunus species. Synanthedon exitiosa and lesser peach tree borer Synanthedon pictipes are moths – the female lays eggs at the base of the trunk, and when larvae hatch they bore into it, destroying the crucial cambium layer.

Skip laurels infested with peach tree borer can wilt, lose leaves and die relatively quickly. If you see any of these signs, it’s important to closely inspect the lowest 12 inches of bark (and consider going 3 inches or so into the soil) to look for exuding sap – often mixed with sawdust – which the larvae excrete.

Management is complicated, involving pheromone traps; I’d consider enlisting an arborist for help with this one – preferably before the borer becomes most active in July.

You can reduce the risk of getting borer problems in the first place by:

  • keeping your skip laurel well watered
  • being careful not to damage your bark (e.g. with weed trimmers)
  • keeping mulch over your roots, but avoiding contact with the bark – as discussed above, it’s best to leave a gap around the trunk itself.

Severely infested trees usually need to be removed, unfortunately.

White prunicola scale

Infestation with this insect (Pseudaulacaspis prunicola) is common on cultivars of cherry laurel, including skip laurel. Feeding directly on your shrub’s nutrients, they can cause dieback of branches and stunt the growth of your laurel.

It causes snowy white patches to appear along branches and twigs. These are usually visible year round, so it’s quite easy to examine skip laurel for them. Beware though – it can start insidiously with just a little white scale seen here and there, and then advance fairly rapidly.

Applying horticultural oil to the trees in the winter and early spring (in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions) is an environmentally-friendly option and will be enough to manage mild infestations.

However I’d consult an arborist if your scale is widespread on your skip laurel, as it may require more intensive management – prunicola scale has a complex life cycle so multiple applications of pesticide may be needed.

Here’s a video from horticulturalist Robby Weeds in which you can see the prunicola scale on a laurel quite clearly, and you’ll get some of his personal tips.

White prunicola scale on laurel

Like peach tree borer, prunicola scale is more likely to affect trees that are already stressed. So it’s important to prevent drought in particular.

My skip laurel isn’t flowering well (or at all)

Skip laurel produces fragrant white flowers in spring. But what if they haven’t appeared this year, or there aren’t very many?

Firstly, if you’ve planted a row of young skip laurels – particularly if they came as bare root trees – they may just be too young to flower as yet. It could take around 4 years for this to begin, so be patient, particularly if they seem otherwise healthy to you. If you can, call the nursery you got them front – they should be able to tell you whether they should be flowering yet.

If they did flower well in the past and you’ve pruned them recently, it may be a matter of timing. While most tree and shrubs pruning happen during dormancy in autumn and winter, this can result in many of the buds – which would otherwise become flowers – getting lopped off. For this reason, many recommend pruning skip laurel in early summer, after flowering.

Lack of flowers can be a sign of stress, too. When a tree or shrub’s struggling to survive, it tends to put its energy into root establishment and maximizing photosynthesis, rather than reproduction. In particular, recent transplanting and drought could result in a drop in the number of blossoms you have this year – see the sections above on these issues.

Fertilizing skip laurels

Given all that we’ve discussed, will it help to fertilize your skip laurels?

The answer is… probably! While shrubs that are well established usually don’t need to be fed, it can help with a stressed plant. My go-to is a granular slow-release fertilizer – namely, Miracle-Gro All Purpose continuous plant-release food, because it’s difficult to overdo it (fertilizer burn can be a problem as well).

‘Complete’ fertilizers like this one contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N, P and K) – most everything a skip laurel needs.

There are ways to find out if your soil’s low in nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium using a home test kit. I use Rapitest’s soil kit for this – pretty easy!

I hope you enjoyed this article. Check out my home page – I’m sure there’ll be something else relevant to your needs.

Image attributions:

David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tomwsulcer, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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