A large, evergreen shrub or tree, not hardy in severe cold; can form a tree 20 ft (6 metres) tall in southern England. Insignificant pale yellow flowers in May, followed by black berries in hot summers. Origin, southern Europe, possibly introduced 1548.
Leaves strongly flavoured and much used in cooking, alone or as part of a bouquet garni. Berries and leaves much used formerly for medicinal purposes.
Used to make wreaths in Roman times to honour poets, (hence the term poet laureate) generals, athletes and students, particularly medical students. Culpeper considered that it ‘resisteth witchcraft very potently’, and advised that ‘the berries are very effectual against the sting of wasps and bees’. The diarist John Evelyn recommended its use against ague. For many years it was used with other evergreens for decorations at Christmas.
Any soil and a sunny, sheltered place suit it.
Young plants are put in during autumn or spring; heel cuttings can be taken in April, or 3-4 in. (7-10 cm) half-ripe cuttings in August in a cold frame, in pots, potting-on as required. Plant out next autumn in nursery bed for two years. Clip trained plants twice in July and September. A good container plant as pyramid or standard.