Sitting on laurels – notes for learning tropical laurels without flowers

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.

Leaf portraits

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.

Beilschmiedia bancroftii DSC_0996 (3)-002
Beilschmiedia bancroftii has dark glossy leaves, somewhat lighter green underneath, and with veins looping within the leaf margin

Beilschmiedia tooram CooperCk DSC_0099-001
Beilschmiedia tooram has leaves somewhat clustered at the ends of branches. The leaves are somewhat glaucous green underneath, and with veins clearly looping near the leaf margin

Cinnamomum laubatii Millaa Millaa Falls DSC_0387 (2)
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 grandis
Cryptocarya grandis – the first pair of veins stretch out to the near the tip and at the start of these veins are “hairy armpits”. Leaves have a waxy underside.

Cryptocarya cunninghamii DSC_0016
Cryptocarya cunninghamii – This interesting species has somewhat oblong leaves and what I can only describe as a spicy-sweet coconut scent when the leaves are crushed.

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 NS DSC_0997 (2)
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 bessaphila DSC_0640
Endiandra bessaphila – thick fleshy leaves with caverns (foveoles) at the veins-midrib intersections.

Endiandra discolor
Endiandra discolor – recognizable by the very prominent and domatia and glaucous leaf underside.

Endiandra cowleyana DSC_0059 (4)
Endiandra cowleyana can look similar (with large domatia), but has a green underside (not a common feature among laurels)

Endiandra grayi and Endiandra hypoptera  DSC_1178 (1)
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.

Endiandra impressicosta DSC_0227 (1)
Endiandra impressicosta – Veins loop. Leaves dark green and shiny both above and below. Similar to Endiandra microneura but midrib not raised above.

Endiandra insignis vs Endiandra leptodendron
Endiandra insignis (left) – leaves have a rather bold venation and a slight cardboard texture and slightly glaucous below. Other quite similar to E. leptodendron (right) in the non-fruiting state.

Endiandra leptodendronIMG_2242
Endiandra leptodendron – leaves sort of soft-textured and soft hairy. Veins protruding underneath. The leaf colour is only very mildly glaucous underneath, and almost the same as the top side.

Endiandra sankeyana DSC_0216
Endiandra sankeyana – am still learning but it looks like a larger softer and less densely hairly Litsea leefeana

Endiandra wolfei DSC_0696 (1)
Endiandra wolfei is very similar to E. hypotephra but the veins are at a more acute angle to the midrib.

Lindera queenslandica – somebody show me!!!

Litsea bindoniana DSC_1014
Litsea bindoniana – big big leaves. Probably the biggest of the laurels here. Greatness is always recognizable!

Litsea fawcettiana DSC_0578
Litsea fawcettiana – smooth-leaved and shiny.

Litsea leefeana
Litsea leefeana – probably one of the most common species.

Litsea breviumbellata (top) and L glutinosa (bottom) DSC_0585
Litsea breviumbellata differs from Litsea glutinosa in the colour of the hairs on the veins.

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


About David Tng

I am David Tng, a hedonistic botanizer who pursues plants with a fervour. I chase the opportunity to delve into various aspects of the study of plants. I have spent untold hours staring at mosses and allied plants, taking picture of pollen, culturing orchids in clean cabinets, counting tree rings, monitoring plant flowering times, etc. I am currently engrossed in the study of plant ecology (a grand excuse to see 'anything I can). Sometimes I think of myself as a shadow taxonomist, a sentimental ecologist, and a spiritual environmentalist - but at the very root of it all, a "plant whisperer"!
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