The leaves of bay laurel are best known for their use as a kitchen seasoning, but bay laurel is actually an evergreen shrub or tree native to the Mediterranean area. It has large, pointed oval leaves that are deep, glossy green in color with a leathery texture. Its natural habit is to grow into a considerable tree with multiple stems that support a dense green pyramidal canopy. But this slow-growing plant willingly accepts heavy pruning, so you will just as often see it appearing as a shrub or container plant kept trimmed into a dense green mass.
Potted plants are generally kept to 4 to 6 feet, while untended landscape plants can eventually grow to 60 feet. In the spring, bay laurel has small yellow flowers that develop into purple berries in the fall. This is a slow-growing plant (a few inches per year) that is best planted in the spring.
Though the leaves are often used in cooking, they are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses. The leaves contain eugenol and other oils that can cause nausea and diarrhea.
|Common Name||Bay laurel, laurel, bay tree,|
|Botanical Name||Laurus nobilis|
|Plant Type||Shrub, small tree (broadleaf evergreen)|
|Mature Size||10–60 ft. tall, 5–20 ft wide; container plants generally kept pruned to 4–6 ft.|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Well-drained; general potting mix for potted plants|
|Soil pH||Acidic to alkaline (4.5–8.3)|
|Bloom Time||Late spring to early summer|
|Flower Color||Pale yellow|
|Hardiness Zones||8–10 (USDA)|
|Toxicity||Toxic to dogs, cats, horses|
Bay Laurel Care
Bay laurel can be grown as a pruned garden shrub or full-sized landscape tree in any rich, moist, and well-drained soil. More often (and always, in cold climates) it is grown in a pot filled with general-purpose potting mix.
Potted bay laurel plants are often moved between indoor and outdoor locations as the seasonal weather dictates. Bay laurel plants make attractive houseplants, but they benefit from some extra outdoor heat and light in the summer. During their outdoor summer vacations, potted plants should still be somewhat protected from full outdoor sun.
If you grow your bay tree indoors, keep it near a sunny window for the winter. Avoid exposure to both drafts and heat from appliances or HVAC ducts. Outdoor plants prefer partial shade but will tolerate full sun. In areas with hot, dry summers, some afternoon shade is ideal.
If you grow the plant to provide leaves for cooking, they produce the best flavor if the plant is given full sun for at least a portion of the year.
This tree is not too particular about soil type, but it must be well-draining. It will do equally well in acidic and alkaline soils. Container plants can be grown in an ordinary commercial potting mix.
Bay roots are very shallow, and frequent watering may be necessary during dry spells. Water it regularly but always allow the soil to dry out between waterings, so the roots don’t rot. Although your bay tree will probably just go dormant and drop a few leaves, you do not want its soil to remain dry for extended periods.
Temperature and Humidity
Bay laurel is hardy in USDA hardiness zones 8 through 10. In cooler areas, bring it indoors for the winter and give it relatively cool but bright conditions. However, you may have trouble keeping your indoor bay tree from drying out in the low humidity of your home. When it signals trouble by dropping a few leaves, use the leaves in cooking and begin misting the tree regularly. A room humidifier can also be useful.
Since bay laurel is slow-growing, it doesn’t require a great deal of food when grown as a garden plant. Plants in containers, however, need some supplemental fertilizer. Feed a container-grown bay plant in the spring and again in mid-summer, using a balanced organic fertilizer, such as 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.
Types of Bay Laurel
It’s very important that you grow only plants labeled Laurus nobilis if you plan to use the leaves for cooking and eating. There are other plants that go by the common names of bay and sweet bay, but these are not necessarily edible and are sometimes even toxic. There are also a few ornamental cultivars of Laurus nobilis that may not have quite the same taste as the pure species plant. Here are some of the better true bay laurel cultivars.
- Laurus nobilis 'Angustifolia': Also known as willow-leaf laurel, the narrow leaves of this cultivar are prized for their attractive texture when the tree is pruned.
- Laurus nobilis 'Aurea': This variety exhibits new leaves that are bright yellow and aromatic.
- Laurus nobilis 'Undulata': With this cultivar, the leaf edges are rippled or wavy, making it a particularly ornamental tree.
- Laurus nobilis 'Saratoga': This is a smaller tree when planted in the landscape, growing to a maximum of 30 feet. The leaves are more rounded and lighter in color. It makes a good variety for food seasoning leaves.
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 a manageable size and desirable shape. 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. There is little technique involved in pruning a bay laurel, as the plant will sprout new dense growth from wherever you snip off the branches. The technique is really just about controlling the size and creating the shape you want.
Propagating Bay Laurel
Bay laurel is relatively easy to propagate by taking softwood cuttings and rooting them, but this is a slow-growing plant, so be patient. Here's how to do it:
- In summer, use pruners to take 6-inch cuttings from green, pliable branches.
- Fill small pots with coarse sand, then dip the tip of each cutting into rooting hormone, then plant it in its container. Moisten the sand.
- Cover the containers loosely with plastic bags, enclosing the tops with rubber bands.
- Place the containers in a warm location where they get lots of bright indirect light. It can sometimes help to place the containers on a heating mat as they root.
- Within a month or two, the cuttings should develop roots, which you can identify because you'll feel resistance when tugging on them. At this point, the plastic bags can be removed and you can continue growing the cutting until it's large enough for a permanent pot or to plant in the landscape.
How to Grow Bay Laurel From Seed
Growing by laurel from seed is possible, though not easy. It takes patience and a willingness to accept frequent failure. Bay laurels are dioecious plants, so only the female plants have flowers that develop into small purple fruits from which seeds can be collected. And be prepared to nurse the seeds for as much as 6 months before they germinate. Don't be surprised if fewer than 50 percent of the seeds germinate successfully.
Soak the seeds overnight for 24 hours before planting. Fill a seed tray with soilless seed-starter mix, then spread the seeds out over the mix, about 2 inches apart, and press them lightly into the mix. Place the seed tray in a location that receives at least 8 hours of light at a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a mister to keep the mix just barely damp until germination occurs. It can take daily tending for as long as 6 months until the seeds germinate and sprout, though sometimes it will occur in as little as 10 days. After they sprout, wait until the plants develop their first true leaves before transplanting into pots for continued growing. It can take several years for these slow-growing plants to achieve a size suitable to be used as attractive houseplants.
Potting and Repotting Bay Laurel
Bay makes a popular container plant that can live for decades. To keep its size in check, use a relatively small container. Just make sure it has a broad enough base to prevent the tree from toppling over in the wind. A 24-inch pot should be fine for a 4- to 6-foot tree. Grow the plant in an ordinary commercial potting mix.
Bay seems to grow best when it's 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.
Potted plants given an outdoor location for the summer should be brought indoors as temperatures begin to dip below 50 degrees on a frequent basis. A plant that grows fine in a partial shade outdoor location will want more light in the winter—give it a sunny window or patio door. But indoor temperatures should still be relatively low.
In warm-weather zones where your bay laurel is growing in the landscape, no winter protection is needed, though fall and winter are a good time to do any pruning that is necessary.
For the most part, the bay laurel is pest-free. In fact, the plant and its leaves are often used to deter pests from other plants and in the pantry.
Scale can sometimes become a problem and moths sometimes lay their eggs between two leaves and 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. Any number of other pests common to indoor houseplants can also affect bay laurel plants, especially mealybugs and spider mites, both of which are best treated with horticultural oil or soap.
These plants have some susceptibility to fungal diseases:
- Anthracnose causes the tips of the leaves to turn brown or black, then gradually die. Remove affected leaves with sterilized pruners, and treat the soil with a fungicide (anthracnose is an internal infection). Severely infected plants will need to be destroyed.
- Powdery mildew creates a whitish residue on the leaves of the plant. Treat the plant with neem oil or another horticultural oil. Improving air circulation and keeping soil surfaces clean often prevent the disease. Replacing the top 2 inches of potting soil each year will prevent the fungal spores from persisting.
- Phytophthora root rot is a known problem for bay laurel plants. It is a fungus-like organism that can cause the slow, gradual collapse of the plant. Early symptoms include the appearance of dark, gummy streaks on the bark, usually low on the stems. Fungicides may help control the disease, along with regular replacement of the top few inches of potting soil.
Common Problems With Bay Laurel
While this is a fairly trouble-free plant, both as in indoor plant and outdoor specimen, some common problems may occur.
This can happen with landscape specimens, or with potted bay laurels that are left outdoors too long as winter approaches. If your bay laurel 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. If your tree does show signs of die-back in the spring, prune the stem down to below the damage, which usually results in new growth filling in. In extreme cases, cut the entire plant down to about 6 inches and allow new shoots to form from the base.
It is quite normal for a bay laurel plant to drop some leaves shortly after it is moved indoors from an outdoor location. Don't worry if this happens. If the leaf drop is also accompanied by spotting on the leaves, you may have a foliar fungus that needs treating with fungicide.
Cracked or Peeling Bark
Most common with landscape specimens but also possible with potted plants, a bay laurel that shows cracking or peeling bark may be suffering from rapid changes in moisture levels or temperatures. These plants like fairly steady temperatures and constant moisture levels. This problem is rarely fatal.
Yellow or Brown Leaves
Yellow leaves usually occur because a bay laurel is receiving too much moisture; brown leaves, because it's not getting enough water. Less commonly, insufficient feeding may cause yellowing leaves.
What are the landscape uses for bay laurel?
Because bay laurel is a very slow grower (a few inches per year) and accepts pruning so gladly, this plant is very commonly grown in containers, kept on a patio or deck in the summer, moved indoors for the winter. Only in zones 8 to 10 is it a viable outdoor landscape plant, where it makes a good specimen tree for shady areas. Hard regular pruning will keep it dense and full, making it a good screening plant.
How do I harvest bay laurel leaves?
Mature leaves can be picked at any time for use in recipes. Plants should be at least two years old before the leaves are harvested. Cure the leaves by laying them on parchment paper and allowing them to dry for two weeks in a warm, dry place.
Leaves of the bay tree have many culinary uses. Bay is also a traditional component of the French bouquet garni herbs. 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.
How long can a bay laurel plant live?
A bay laurel plant can live for up to 50 years and perhaps longer, barring fatal diseases or cold injury.
Where should I place bay laurel in my house?
The best location for an indoor bay laurel plant is in a bright location, well removed from drafts and heat-producing appliances, and heating ducts or radiators. In the winter, it will appreciate being near a sunny window or patio door.