I have always been a bit of a sucker for variegated plants, despite them not being seen by everyone as good taste. It is down to my interest in anything unusual but must have been fueled by the replanting of ‘Tom Tiddler’s Ground’ at Myddelton House where, in the past, Bowles collected and planted silver and gold plants. I used to think that if a plant was good then it must be better if it is variegated. But this is not always the case and whether I like a variegated plant depends on many factors these days. Firstly, it must be stable. Because most variegated plants are mutations (chimaera) they can revert and green shoots appear. This is fine if the plant is small and easily pruned but if it is a tree such as the awful Acer platanoides ‘Drumondii’ then I think the plant is unacceptable. In the case of this tree you usually see it as a lopsided specimen with the larger, stronger-growing, all-green section ‘taking over’ the whole tree. But the leaves themselves are OK with their neat edge of white. I like this type of marginal variegation, or a splash of yellow or white in the centre. But I am not keen on what I like to call bird-dropping variegation where there are random splashes and streaks as though wood pigeons are roosting above.
It is in this group that Prunus laurocerasus ‘Castlewellan’ sits. Also (erroneously) called ‘Marbled White’, this is a slightly smaller and neater version of the common laurel, or just laurel. Despite the ubiquity of this useful evergreen, it is not native but was introduced at the end of the 16th century from eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Anatolia, the home of Rhododendron ponticum. It usually has leaves up to 15cm long and 5cm wide but there are lots of variations. The plain species can easily reach 7m high and across, making a spreading tree, but it is most often used just for screening. Although the flowers are usually ignored, they are pretty enough in their upright racemes and the black berries that follow are useful for birds.
‘Castlewellan’ has slightly distorted leaves which are marbled with white. I am not very happy looking at the leaves up close but they do give the plant a greyish hue from a distance. With occasional clipping it can be neat and attractive and it will grow in light shade too which is a bonus.