How to Grow Bay Laurel

Potted Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis)

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The leaves of bay laurel are best known for their use as a kitchen seasoning, but the bay laurel plant 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 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 into 60-foot trees.

In the spring, bay laurel has small yellow flowers that develop into purple berries in the fall. Frequent pruning will mean fewer flowers and berries.

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. As with most trees, spring is the best planting time.

Botanical Name Laurus nobilis
Common Name Bay laurel, laurel, bay tree,
Plant Type Broadleaf evergreen shrub or small tree
Mature Size 10–60 feet tall, 5–20 feet wide; container plants are generally kept pruned to 4–6 feet
Sun Exposure Full sun to part shade
Soil Type Any well-draining soil; general-purpose potting mixes for potted plants
Soil pH 4.5–8.3 (acidic to alkaline)
Bloom Time Late spring to early summer
Flower Color Pale yellow
Hardiness Zones 8–10 (USDA)
Native Area Mediterranean regions
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 moved often between indoor and outdoor locations as the seasonal weather dictates. They make attractive houseplants but they benefit from some summer sun; it's a good idea to move houseplants out in the sunshine in the summer.

Light

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. Outdoor plants prefer part shade but will tolerate full sun. In areas with hot, dry summers, some afternoon shade is ideal.

If 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.

Soil

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 ordinary commercial potting mix. Plant your bay tree at the same depth as it was planted in its original pot.

Water

Bay roots are very shallow, and frequent watering may be necessary during dry spells. Use caution when weeding or cultivating around the base of the tree. 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 is only hardy in USDA hardiness zones 8 through 10. In cooler areas, bring it indoors for the winter and give it relatively cool 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 with water.

Fertilizer

Since bay laurel is slow-growing, it doesn’t require a great deal of food. Plants in containers 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.

Is Bay Laurel Toxic?

Bay laurel leaves contain eugenol and other essential oils that make them a great food seasoning for humans, but which are toxic to dogs, cats, and horses.

Symptoms of Poisoning

Vomiting and diarrhea can result in animals that eat the leaves of bay laurel. Large ingestion can sometimes cause intestinal blockage. Although not toxic to humans, some people find the oil from the leaves to be a mild skin irritant.

Potting and Repotting

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 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.

Varieties 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. There are also a few ornamental cultivars of Laurus nobilis that may not have quite the same taste as the pure species plant.

  • 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.

Pruning Bay Laurel

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 desireable 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.

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. 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, cut the entire plant down to about 6 inches and allow new shoots to form from the base.

Harvesting 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. The leaves are also used to make fragrant 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 the leaf oils to be a skin irritant.

Common Pests/ Diseases

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.

Article Sources
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  1. Laurus nobilis. North Carolina State University Extension

  2. Paulsen, Evy. Systemic allergic dermatitis caused by sesquiterpene lactones. Department of Dermatology and Allergy Centre, Odense University Hospital. doi:10.1111/cod.12671