Everyone has partaken of the healthful goodness of Avocado (Persea americana), or enjoyed the flavour that bay leaves confer to good traditional pastas. The more aromatically-inclined among us may perhaps enjoy the sense of tranquillity that the aroma of May Chang essential oil affords (aromatic oil from Litsea cubeba). In contrast, a field botanists’ learning experience with laurels can be marked by frustration and confusion and a perhaps a lowering of self-esteem.
Laurels are perhaps the botanical equivalent of the “brown-jobs” of the birding world – an expression bird watchers use to describe little brown birds that look alike through their binoculars. Even with the leisure of time to stare and compare between individuals, laurels can look extremely similar in the field, and even more so when dry. Very often I have heard myself and other botanists saying on examining a plant that ‘it’s some kind of laurel’.
Laurel-spotting for laymen
Spotting members of this family is not too difficult. The leaves are simple, and usually always alternate (there are exceptions; some Cinnamomum spp.), and the underside is often whitish-green due to wax (there are exceptions). There is also often an aromatic oil scent when the leaves are crushed (although in some species the scent is so faint you might think it is imaginary). Dark or rusty-coloured hairs are often present on the leaves or twigs, and at least at the developing buds. The leaf stalk is often curved. And finally, many species (eg. many Cryptocarya spp.) have the first pair of veins elongated and stretching up until near the middle or to the tip of the leaf, giving the leaves a three-nerved appearance.
I am tempted to say at this juncture that when faced with many laurels in the field, your guess is as good as mine. But in the spirit of learning and sharing, here are my notes for laurels of north Queensland (which I will update with time), at least those I have come to hope I have made a more lasting acquaintance with.
Beilschmiedia – This genus in general seems to stand out a little by often having leaves clustered at the branch tips, but not always (see Beilschmiedia bancroftii below). The leaves often have looping veins. More on this in time.
Cinnamomum – This genus has a few species that have opposite leaves (Cinnamomum laubatii above). The exotic Cinnamomum camphora appears to be an exception, with leaves that are more spirally-arranged.
Cryptocarya acuminata – leaves are ovate-shaped and seem to wither yellow. Looks like a shorter Cryptocarya grandis with no hairy armpits
Cryptocarya mackinnoniana – Very leathery leaves and rather big leaves with very bold and rough venation underneath. Infuriatingly similar to C. murrayi. One of my teachers taught me that the midrib of C. mackinnoniana are depressed for the full length whereas in C. murrayi the midrib is raised above the leaf surface near the leaf base.
Cryptocarya murrayi – Very similar to C. mackinoniana but the buds more rusty hairy and the venation of mature leaves not as strongly rough.
Cryptocarya pleurosperma – somewhat shiny and fleshy looking. 3 nerved. Do not crush and rub over your nose, lest you corrode your nasal epithelia. This is one species you MUST know. It is the Poison Walnut, with blistering alkaloids in her sap! Very simialr to Cryptocarya laevigata, which has somewhat slender-er leaves with a more papery texture.
Cryptocarya putida – Leaves can have the same elongated oblong-ish shape as C. mackinoniana, but has less number of veins
Endiandra grayi (left) – not very common. Seen it in Daintree. Very similar to E. hypotephra (right) but has much hairier twigs near the new leaf buds, and a little more whitish on the underside than silvery
Endiandra hypotephra – Very similar to E. grayi but has less hairier twigs near the new leaf buds, and a little more silvery on the underside than whitish. This species is quite common.
Lindera queenslandica – somebody show me!!!
Neolitsea brassii – leaves clustered in whorls, leaf undersides glaucous. Buds not hairy
Neolitsea dealbata – leaves clustered in whorls, leaf undersides very waxy glaucous to almost white. Buds hairy