By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Bay leaves add their essence and aroma to our soups and stews, but did you ever wonder how to grow a bay leaf tree? The seasoning is so commonplace it is easy to forget that the leaves are from a growing tree. The sweet bay leaf tree (Laurus nobilis) is a 40- to 50-foot (12 to 15 m.) tall tree native to the Mediterranean region. It was once made into a wreath to crown the winners of ancient Greek games. The tree is considered to be one of the oldest cultivated tree species.
Sweet bay leaf tree is frost tender and is only hardy to USDA plant hardiness zone 7. It prefers a full sun exposure and blooms in spring to summer. The leaves are leathery and stiff with a strong mid-rib. Crushing the leaf releases aromatic oil that is the source of the flavoring for foods. Bay tree care is very simple and straightforward but protection must be given to these trees in cold climates.
Sweet bay trees should be planted in well drained soil with an incorporation of generous amounts of compost. The trees can be kept at a smaller growth habit if grown in a container, which also allows the gardener to bring the tree indoors or to a sheltered location when cold temperatures threaten. Plant the trees at the same level in soil that they were grown in their nursery pot. Planting bay trees is best done in early spring when they are semi-dormant.
You can grow a bay tree simply as an ornamental plant or as part of your culinary arsenal. Growing a bay tree from cuttings or air layering is the common form of propagation. Cuttings should be taken in late summer and set into a soil-less medium. Air layering requires the gardener to wound the tree and pack it with sphagnum moss until roots form in the wound. The stem or branch can then be cut off and planted.
Protect sweet bay trees from heavy winds, which are damaging to the weak wood. Bay trees do not need feeding or supplemental watering in winter. Bay trees can be trained to a topiary or other form with careful management when the plant is young. Place a potted plant in an area where temperatures range from 45 to 64 F. (7 to 17 C.) and where sunlight is from a southern or eastern direction.
Leaves may be harvested at any time but the best flavor can be had from larger, mature leaves. Lay the leaves out to dry and crush them or use them whole but remove before eating. The leaves are a common ingredient in the French seasoning packet, bouquet garni, which is wrapped in cheesecloth and steeped in soups and sauces. It is worth learning how to grow a bay leaf tree for ornamentation and fresh wholesome seasoning.
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Read more about Bay Trees
Other Names: Sweet Bay, Bay Leaf
A normally pyramidal, aromatic, evergreen tree or large shrub, with leathery, glossy dark green leaves commonly used as a culinary herb may be pruned to any shape and size great as a hedge, screen, or container plant an excellent houseplant
Bay Laurel has attractive green foliage throughout the season. The glossy oval leaves are highly ornamental but do not develop any appreciable fall color. It features subtle chartreuse flowers at the ends of the branches from early to mid spring. It produces plum purple berries in early summer.
Bay Laurel is a multi-stemmed deciduous tree with a distinctive and refined pyramidal form. Its average texture blends into the landscape, but can be balanced by one or two finer or coarser trees or shrubs for an effective composition.
This is a relatively low maintenance tree, and can be pruned at anytime. It is a good choice for attracting bees and butterflies to your yard, but is not particularly attractive to deer who tend to leave it alone in favor of tastier treats. It has no significant negative characteristics.
Bay Laurel is recommended for the following landscape applications
Bay Laurel will grow to be about 30 feet tall at maturity, with a spread of 20 feet. It has a low canopy with a typical clearance of 2 feet from the ground, and is suitable for planting under power lines. It grows at a medium rate, and under ideal conditions can be expected to live for 60 years or more. This is a dioecious species, meaning that individual plants are either male or female. Only the females will produce fruit, and a male variety of the same species is required nearby as a pollinator.
This tree does best in full sun to partial shade. It does best in average to evenly moist conditions, but will not tolerate standing water. It is not particular as to soil type or pH. It is somewhat tolerant of urban pollution. This species is not originally from North America. It can be propagated by cuttings.
Bay Laurel is a fine choice for the yard, but it is also a good selection for planting in outdoor pots and containers. Its large size and upright habit of growth lend it for use as a solitary accent, or in a composition surrounded by smaller plants around the base and those that spill over the edges. It is even sizeable enough that it can be grown alone in a suitable container. Note that when grown in a container, it may not perform exactly as indicated on the tag - this is to be expected. Also note that when growing plants in outdoor containers and baskets, they may require more frequent waterings than they would in the yard or garden.
Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) is a beautiful evergreen shrub of culinary fame. How cool to pick your own bay leaves to dry or use fresh in recipes! And yes, some cooks want it dried, but fresh also works.
In its native habitat, Bay laurel can get up to 40′ tall, but here it will remain much shorter, closer to 5 feet tall, though Trisha‘s at Lake Austin Spa is way beyond that!
You can also hedge it back, to keep it manageable if it gets too tall. It also does great in a container.
Since Mediterranean winters are not usually as cold as ours here, you may need to protect bay laurel on an extra cold night, especially during the first few years. But well-established trees should experience very little freeze damage, even with temperatures down into the teens, as long as those temps are not prolonged.
Bay laurel prefers very rich, well-drained soil, so be sure to amend the planting area (not just the hole) with lots of compost. It requires full sun to thrive, but will struggle in areas with reflected heat and very dry air. You will need to water bay laurel regularly, but not more than once a week, once established, except in very hot, prolonged dry spells. Of course, since this is a culinary plant, you’ll want to harvest some of the leaves, which you can do at any time of the year. Since bay laurel is so shrubby, it responds well to pruning, especially if it’s healthy, and will put on new growth every time you harvest.
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Plant: ornamental & wildlife
Plant: food crops
The range of available options is extremely broad when it comes to selecting a container to grow this plant.
Bay laurel can handle cramped feet, but it absolutely can’t handle wet ones. Whatever container you choose, it must have a drainage hole for every 12 square inches of surface area.
The container material doesn’t matter as much as the availability of adequate drainage, but if you typically get a lot of rain in your area, you might want to go with unglazed terra-cotta.
These types of pots dry out faster than sealed containers like glazed ceramic, plastic, or cement.
More frequent watering might be necessary as a result, but this will also help to ensure that your plants aren’t overly saturated.
The size of container you should choose varies, depending on how large you want to let your tree grow. Yes, that’s right. I said tree.
A 24-inch pot is adequate if you want a mature tree that is about five or six feet tall. But you could choose a tiny six-inch bonsai pot instead, and keep your plant pruned to under a foot tall.
Another important factor to consider is whether or not you will need to take your container indoors in the winter.
If you live in a cooler growing zone, make sure you can either lift the container, or place it on a cart that’s on wheels so you can maneuver it inside.
I find a seven-gallon pot that’s 14 inches in diameter to be about right. At this size, I can move the plant around easily, and I still get enough leaves off my two-foot-tall shrub to satisfy all my cooking needs for a family of two. You really only need a couple of leaves at a time.
Keep weight and proportions in mind. You don’t want to let your tree grow larger than the container can handle, or you run the risk of it tipping over in a strong wind.
A six-foot tree in a skinny, 12-inch-tall container is likely to tip. So is a six-foot tree in a five-gallon plastic tub.
If you want to use a smaller container for aesthetic reasons, be sure that it is heavy. Choose cement or something similar.
Bay laurel is a pretty easy-going plant, even when grown indoors, when you give it the following basic care.
To achieve the lush foliage on bay trees make sure to put them in a location that receives full sun to partial shade. Exposure to a south or west-facing window is best when grown indoors.
If you see signs of too little light you can supplement with a grow light or even try giving it some exposure to extra fluorescent light.
Bay laurel is somewhat indifferent to fluctuations in temperatures, as long as they are above freezing and stay below 90℉. Keep your tree in the main living areas of your home where temperatures range between 60 and 75℉ for optimum growth below this and growth will slow considerably as the plant will think it’s time to go dormant.
Due to the Mediterranean origin, bay laurel prefers high humidity levels. Humidity levels inside most homes are on the drier side to combat this periodically mist your tree when grown indoors or grow it in a high humidity area of the home such as the bathroom.
Plants like the potting mix or growing media to be slightly moist at all times without being waterlogged. Water regularly during the warmer months, making sure to not let the root ball dry out. During the dormant season, you can ease up on the watering slightly, letting the top inch of growing media dry out before watering again.
Apply a balanced organic fertilizer (compost tea or fish emulsion works well) once during the spring and then once again later in the summer. Do not fertilize when the plant is dormant during the colder months.
For the most part, bay laurel has few problems with diseases or pests. Avoid letting the soil become waterlogged to avoid root rot, and carefully watch for aphids, scale insects, and bay sucker which is known as jumping plant lice. Treat infestations quickly to minimize long-term damage.
Every 2 to 3 years move the plant to a larger container and refresh the potting soil. Plants will tolerate being slightly rootbound so there isn’t a need to repot every year like with some indoor container plants.
Bay laurel is slow growing so it isn’t necessary for the health of the tree to prune it regularly but can be done. Like other plants, pruning will encourage more vigorous growth and bushier trees.
When grown indoors it is important to keep the height of your plant manageable. Keep indoor plants trimmed so they resemble a small tree, growing no larger than 5 or 6-feet tall.
You can also shape your bay laurel into topiary forms if so desired. It’s best to do this in early spring or fall.
This is the biggest difference between a bay plant and your other “common” herbs – wait to harvest leaves until your tree is at least two years old. Then use sharp scissors or pruning shears to remove the foliage you desire.
After harvesting, lay fresh leaves on a parchment paper-covered tray in a single layer and allow to dry for a couple of weeks in a warm, dry room in your house. Then store the whole dried bay leaves in an airtight container or grind them up for future use.
Select a place that has sufficient clearance to allow your sweet bay tree to grow -- it can reach between 6 and 35 feet tall with a canopy 5 to 20 feet wide. Sweet bay responds well to heavy pruning if you want to control its size. Expect this tree to grow between 1 and 2 feet per year outdoors.
The low canopy of sweet bay trees makes them ideal plants for hedges or a privacy screen. Plant one as a standalone specimen outside a window, or several as a hedge, to block unwanted views and shield your home from view. To take advantage of the dense to very dense shade provided by the oval gray-green or dark green leaves, plant it on the east and west side of your home or patio, but not too close to underground pipes.
Bay leaves can be used both fresh and dried, however we find the fresh to be a bit bitter. So, when using freshly harvested leaves, we recommend letting the leaves sit out for at least 12 to 24 hours. The drying process reduces this bitterness and really helps enhance the flavor - Sweet bay has been described as pine-flavored or a bit 'woodsy'. Think of a cooler camphor aroma, almost like nutmeg or clove. It is an essential ingredient in a hearty stew or roast, and always use your Bay leaves whole.
As long as you have the right conditions for air drying (warm, dry and no humidity), we recommend this method for bay leaves. All you need to do is hang the stems in small bundles (which only works if you have a very large Bay Tree) or lay them on clean surface and allow to dry for 24 to 48 hours. At that point, they need to be sealed in an airtight container and stored in a dark dry place - with all of your other herbs. Use them for up to a year, then discard any remaining leaves.