The leaves of bay laurel are best known for their use as a kitchen seasoning, but bay laurel is an evergreen shrub or tree native to the Mediterranean area. The bay laurel tree has large, pointed oval leaves that are deep, glossy green in color with a leathery texture. Its natural growth habit produces a medium- to large-sized tree with multiple stems that support a dense green pyramidal canopy. But bay laurel 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.
Bay laurel is somewhat easy to care for indoors or outdoors. The sizes of potted plants are generally kept to 4 to 8 feet tall, while unpruned landscape plants can eventually grow from 30 to 60 feet tall. In the spring, bay laurel has small yellow flowers that develop into dark purple berries in the fall. The bay laurel is dioecious (which means that the plants have specific genders, male or female). Flowers on female plants must be pollinated by a nearby male bay laurel to produce berries. Bay Laurel is a slow-growing tree (a few inches per year) that is best planted in the spring.
Though the leaves are often used in cooking, the leaves are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses.
|Common Name||Bay laurel, laurel, laurel tree, bay tree, bay leaf, sweet bay|
|Botanical Name||Laurus nobilis|
|Plant Type||Tree, shrub|
|Mature Size||10–60 ft. tall, 5–20 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Moist, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral, alkaline|
|Bloom Time||Spring, summer|
|Hardiness Zones||8–10 (USDA)|
|Toxicity||Toxic to pets|
Bay Laurel Care
Though bay laurel is not a registered invasive species, some types are noted for their aggressive root system which can slowly but surely spread beyond its intended boundaries. Bay laurel can be grown as a pruned garden shrub or full-sized single- or- multi-stemmed landscape tree in average, well-drained soil. More often (and always, in cold climates) it is container-grown in 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 and heating and air conditioning 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 this tree to use its leaves as a culinary herb, the plant produces the best-flavored leaves if it receives full sun for at least a portion of the year.
This tree grows best in average garden soil (loamy, sandy, and even clay), and the soil 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 laurel roots are very shallow, and frequent watering might be necessary during dry spells. Water this plant regularly to keep the soil moist but not overly wet, which could cause rot to occur. Allow the soil to dry somewhat between waterings but do not let the soil dry out completely.
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 might 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. Consider installing a room humidifier to increase humidity levels in your home.
Because bay laurel is slow-growing, it doesn’t require a great deal of food when grown outdoors in the landscape. Plants grown in containers, however, need supplemental fertilizer. Feed a container-grown bay plant in the spring using a balanced organic fertilizer, such as fish emulsion and kelp. It also helps to refresh the top few inches of soil each spring, being careful not to damage the shallow roots.
Types of Bay Laurel
It’s very important that you grow plants labeled Laurus nobilis if you plan to use the leaves for cooking and eating. Other plants are labeled with the common names 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 might not have quite the same taste as the pure species plant. Here are some of the better true bay laurel cultivars.
- Laurus nobilis f. 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 25 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 up to 60 feet tall. Container-grown trees and trees that are regularly pruned will not grow anywhere near that height. To keep your potted bay tree portable, keep it pruned to a manageable size and desirable shape. Pruning is best done when the tree is not actively growing, perhaps in late winter to early spring before new growth emerges. 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 simply 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 sterile pruners to take 6-inch cuttings from green, pliable branches.
- Fill small pots with coarse, moist sand, then dip the tip of each cutting into rooting hormone, then plant it in its container.
- Cover the containers loosely with plastic bags, securing the bags with rubber bands.
- Place the containers in a warm location where they receive 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 the cuttings. 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 an outdoor garden location.
How to Grow Bay Laurel From Seed
Growing bay laurel from seed is possible, though not easy. It takes patience and a willingness to accept frequent failures. Bay laurels are dioecious plants, so only 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 long as 6 months before they germinate. Don't be surprised if fewer than 50 percent of the seeds germinate successfully. Follow these steps to grow bay laurel from seed:
- Soak the seeds in water overnight for 24 hours before sowing.
- Fill a seed tray with soilless seed-starter mix, then spread the seeds out over the mix, about two inches apart, and press them lightly into the mix.
- Place the seed tray in a location that receives at least eight hours of sunlight and a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Use a water mister to keep the soil mix just barely damp until germination occurs. It can take daily tending for as long as six months until the seeds germinate and sprout, though sometimes germination will occur in as little as 10 days.
- After the seeds sprout, wait until the plants develop their first true leaves before transplanting them into larger pots. 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 laurel 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 5- to 6-foot tree. Grow the plant in an ordinary commercial potting mix.
Bay laurel 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 grown outdoors for the summer should be brought indoors as temperatures begin to dip below 50 degrees Fahrenheit frequently. A plant that grows fine in a partial shade outdoor location will want more sunlight 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.
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 kitchen pantries.
Scale can sometimes become a problem and moths sometimes lay their eggs between two leaves and fuse them 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 insecticidal 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 an indoor plant and outdoor specimen, some common problems may occur.
Winter dieback 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 stems 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, the plant might 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 might 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 happen because it's not getting enough water. Less commonly, insufficient feeding might cause yellowing leaves.
What are 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, and moved indoors for the winter. Only in USDA cold hardiness growing zones 8 to 10 is it a viable outdoor landscape plant, where it makes a good specimen tree for shady areas or as privacy hedges. 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 laurel 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 added while food is cooking 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 injury from cold temperatures.
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.
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Laurus nobilis. North Carolina State Extension.
Bay Laurel. University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.