Spurge laurel (Daphne laureola) may have escaped your notice so far, or you may have written it off as a weird-looking rhododendron. It isn’t a true laurel and it certainly isn’t a spurge, but rather it is one of many ornamental Daphne species that are usually grown for their fragrant flowers (although spurge laurel only smells good at night when it attracts moths). With its evergreen leaves and rhodie-like appearance, spurge laurel almost looks like it belongs in Pacific Northwest forests, but it is in fact an introduced species from Europe and the Mediterranean region that has escaped cultivation and begun to naturalize in forests of northwestern North America.
Although spurge laurel is already quite widespread in urban forests in King County, it is not as conspicuous as escaped ornamentals like English ivy. It is most often found in small populations that can easily be overlooked. Unfortunately it can also at times form sizable infestations that have larger impacts on the local flora. For instance, in southern British Columbia, the San Juan Islands and the Willamette Valley in Oregon it has formed large, dense infestations in some of the few remaining stands of Garry oak woodlands and Madrone forests as well as Douglas fir forests. Once spurge laurel gets established over a large area, removal can be highly difficult to impossible.
Like all species of Daphne, all plant parts of spurge laurel are toxic, especially the berries, and can also cause skin irritation when handled. People and animals can become sick if they eat it. However, birds enjoy the berries, and help disperse the plant out of our gardens and into the forest. The plant is very tolerant of low-light and dry soil, so it has a decided advantage in many PNW forests, where it is often found growing alongside other invasive plants such as English laurel, ivy and holly.
Spurge laurel’s shiny, thick, evergreen leaves might remind you of cherry laurel and it probably gets its spurge name from the way its leaves whorl around the top of the stems and the greenish color of its flowers. The flowers open in late January to early March followed by large single-seeded berry-like fruits that turn black when mature (remember not to eat them – they are poisonous!). Spurge laurel usually grows about 2 to 4 feet tall and is more or less upright although it tends to form leggy, sprawling bushes when it gets full grown.
In Wild Plants of Greater Seattle, Arthur Lee Jacobson writes that spurge laurel grows in the shape of a little tree, with stout twigs and a cluster of leaves near the top. He also explains that the stems stink when cut or damaged and the flowers are only really fragrant at night when they are attracting moths.
Although control is not required in King County, it is strongly encouraged in natural areas or urban forests that are being restored to native species. Be careful though. Remember all plant parts are toxic if consumed and the sap can cause skin irritation. If you pull it, wear gloves and make sure to throw it in a yard waste bin to avoid spreading it further. And of course never dump invasive plants in the woods!