Best known as a seasoning, bay laurel (Botanical Name: Laurus nobilis) is an evergreen shrub or tree that is native to the Mediterranean area. Although bay can grow into a tall tree, it is often kept smaller by pruning or by confining it in a container. Bay is a very slow grower, making it even more suited to growing in a pot.
Features of Bay Laurel Trees
Bay can be grown simply as an ornamental. It has attractive foliage and can easily be pruned and sheared into topiary shapes. In the spring, sweet bay has small yellow flowers which develop into purple berries in the fall. However, frequent pruning will mean fewer flowers and berries.
Uses for Bay Laurel
Bay laurel is used in stews, soups, tomato sauces, on fish and pretty much anywhere you want a subtle, earthy flavor. Bay is also a traditional component of the French 'bouquet garni.'
The dark green leaves are very fragrant, especially when dried. As a seasoning, dried leaves are broken or crumbled into cooking foods and allowed to permeate the dish. The leaves don’t soften much in cooking and are removed before eating. The leaves are also used to make wreaths and garlands.
Bay has also been a traditional medicinal plant, with uses as varied as earaches, rheumatism and insect repellent. But be advised that some people find sweet bay to be a skin irritant.
Growing Bay Trees from Seedlings
Bay is very difficult and slow to start from seed, so most trees are purchased as seedlings. You can start them from seed, but be prepared to wait up to 6 months for the seeds to germinate.
This tree is not too particular about soil and can tolerate a soil pH from 4.5 to 8.3. However, a well-draining soil is important. Plant your bay tree at the same depth as it was planted in its original pot. Bay roots are very shallow and frequent watering may be necessary during dry spells. Also, use caution when weeding or cultivating around the base of the tree.
Container Grown Bay
Bay makes a popular container plant that can live for decades. To keep its size in check, use a small container. Just make sure it has a broad enough base to keep the tree from toppling over in the wind. A 24-inch pot should be fine for a 4 to 6-foot tree.
If you will be bringing your bay tree indoors, keep it near a sunny window for the winter. Avoid exposure to both drafts and heat from appliances and water it regularly. Although your bay tree will probably go dormant and drop a few leaves, you do not want its soil to sit dry for extended periods.
Bay seems to grow best when a little cramped in its pot, even to the point of roots starting to poke out the bottom. You shouldn’t need to re-pot more than once every five years.
Typical Conditions for Growing Bay Trees
Bay trees grow best in full sun to partial shade. In areas with hot, dry summers, some afternoon shade is ideal. Bay is only hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 through 10. In cooler areas, you will need to bring it indoors for the winter.
If left unpruned, bay trees can grow 60 feet tall. Container grown trees and trees that are regularly pruned will not get anywhere near that tall. To keep your potted bay tree portable, keep it pruned to no taller than 5 to 6 feet.
If unpruned, bay laurel should bloom in mid-spring. However, the trees are not often grown for their flowers.
You can begin harvesting leaves when your tree is several feet tall, but you can always use the pruned leaves in the meantime. Even leaves that dry and fall off the tree are still fragrant and usable.
Suggested Bay Tree Varieties to Grow
It’s very important that you only grow plants labeled Laurus nobilis if you plan to use it for cooking and eating. There are other plants that go by the common names of bay and sweet bay and these are not necessarily edible.
There are also a few ornamental cultivars of Laurus nobilis. Whether they season as well as regular Laurus nobilis is a matter of personal taste.
- Laurus nobilis "Angustifolia": Has narrow leaves. Also known as willow-leaf laurel.
- Laurus nobilis "Aurea": New foliage is yellow.
- Laurus nobilis "Undulata": Edges of the leaves are rippled or wavy.
Caring for Your Bay Laurel Tree
Bay is often kept pruned, either to keep the size in check or to create a more ornamental tree. Pruning is usually done in the spring, as new growth is just beginning. You can prune as much or as little as you like, to keep the tree small or to create a topiary artwork.
Since bay is very slow growing, it doesn’t require a great deal of food. However, plants in containers need some supplemental fertilizer. Feed container grown bay in the spring and maybe again mid-summer, with a balanced organic fertilizer like fish emulsion and kelp. It also helps to refresh the top couple of inches of soil each spring, being careful not to hurt the shallow roots.
Bay is drought tolerant but appreciates regular deep watering. Always allow the soil to dry out between waterings, so the roots don’t rot. But as mentioned previously, don’t let it sit for long periods without water.
Pests and Problems of Bay
For the most part, bay is pest free. In fact, it is often used to deter pests from other plants and in the pantry. However, scale can sometimes become a problem and there are moths that will lay their eggs between two leaves and sort of fuse them together with a cottony fluff. If you see two leaves that appear to be stuck together, gently peel them apart and remove the eggs or larva.
If your bay is hit by a light frost, the leaves will probably turn brown and dry. Often the tree will recover on its own, the following spring. However, if your tree does show signs of die-back in the spring, prune the stem down to below the damage and new growth should fill in. In extreme cases, prune to about 6 inches and allow new shoots to form from the base.
You may also have trouble keeping your indoor bay tree from drying out in the low humidity of your home. However, when it signals trouble by dropping a few leaves, use the leaves in cooking and begin misting the tree.