Bay laurels are an evergreen plant hailing from the Mediterranean and are known as one of the oldest trees to be cultivated. Bay laurels were grown in ancient Greece and used to create a crown for those victorious in the Olympic games. It is now grown for its ornamental beauty, but also for use in cooking, in which its dried leaves are commonly used to flavor soups, stews, broths, casseroles, and sauces.
If you have used store-bought bay leaves, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by fresh bay leaves, which have a much deeper flavor and an intense aroma. To grow your own bay laurel, you’ll need to create the ideal conditions as these plants can be quite picky about their care, but they are worth the trouble once you learn how they like to be treated.
Bay Laurel Overview
|Scientific Name||Laurus nobilis|
|Type||Evergreen flowering tree or shrub|
|Common Names||Bay laurel, Bay tree, Bay leaf, Sweet bay tree, True laurel, Grecian laurel|
|Height||Up to 50 feet|
|Light||Full sun to partial shade|
Caring for Your Bay Laurel
Bay laurels like to be kept in moist but well-drained soil, so water them frequently but be careful not to overwater and cause root rot. The roots of a bay laurel are particularly susceptible to irreversible damage from overwatering, so only water the plant when the top layer of soil has dried out.
As further preventative measures against root rot, ensure your bay laurel is grown in a well-draining soil. Incorporate sand or grit into your soil to help its ability to drain effectively, as well as some organic matter, such as well-rotted compost. The compost will help to provide nutrients to the plant, as well as create a good consistency of soil that is able to drain well while also holding on to a little moisture.
Bay laurels kept in containers will need to be watered more frequently than those grown in the ground. This is even truer for terracotta pots, which moisture evaporates from more quickly than other types of pots. Try not to allow the bay laurel to dry out during summer, as it is not drought-tolerant. Water at soil level to prevent fungal problems on the leaves of the plant, and reduce watering during the colder months when the plant becomes dormant.
Bay laurels do well in full-sun locations, or with some partial shade. Native to Mediterranean regions, this plant is accustomed to living in bright sunlight, so try to replicate this as much as you can at home. If your bay laurel is planted in the ground, you should place it in a spot that receives plenty of sun, but which also offers some protection against winds, such as near to a fence or wall.
Although these trees enjoy light, they also like to be sheltered against strong winds. Container-grown bay laurels are less of a concern, as these can be positioned in full light during warm weather, and then moved to a sheltered spot in the event of a storm or strong winds. It is possible to grow bay laurels indoors, and these will need to be kept in a bright window to ensure they get their requirement of light (University of Illinois Extension).
Bay laurels require warm temperatures and are only hardy through USDA growing zones 8 to 10. They are frost tender, and if kept in cold climates will need to be brought inside for the winter. They can tolerate temperatures to 23 °F, though their leaves can experience damage from cold winds or frost, so leaving them in temperatures as low as this may not be appropriate.
If you live in a climate where temperatures routinely drop to below 30 °F, you should grow your bay laurel in a container so that you have the option of moving it in the winter. Only plant the tree in the ground if you are confident that temperatures will not get too cold for the plant. Otherwise, the leaves could drop, and the roots may freeze and not recover.
Even in warmer climates, it’s a good idea to offer winter protection for your plant. For container plants, you can do this by wrapping bubble wrap or fleece around the pot, which will provide some insulation for the roots against cold damage. For both container or ground-grown bay laurels, you can mulch the soil to offer some insulation, though be sure to keep the mulch a few inches clear of the trunk of the tree as this can encourage rot.
You may also want to wrap the tree itself in fleece to protect it against dropping temperatures. The bay laurel is sensitive to sudden drops in temperature, so even if you live in a warmer climate, it could undergo damage from a sudden cold snap.
If you bring your bay laurel inside for the winter, it should be kept in a bright cool room, ideally at around 50 °F. If this isn’t possible, move the tree to a basement or garage, with temperatures between 40 and 50 °F. Keep it in the dark or cover it in fleece or burlap to promote dormancy, then gradually return it to its outside position in the spring once the threat of frost has passed (Royal Horticultural Society).
Bay laurels can be propagated from seed or from stem cuttings. These plants require cross-pollination to form viable seeds, which means a female bay laurel will need to be pollinated with a male bay laurel through pollinators such as butterflies, bees, or birds.
To encourage cross-pollination, you’ll need to have at least two bay laurels, one of each sex, in close proximity to each other. The female plant will set seeds in the fall after the small yellow flowers have bloomed and turned to dark berries. Each berry will contain one seed, which can be planted immediately when removed from inside the flesh of the berry.
Set the seeds on a moist growing medium and cover with a thin layer of soil, keeping it continually warm and moist. If you choose not to sow the seeds straight away, or purchase seeds instead, you will need to soak them in water for around a day before sowing them. Seeds can germinate in as little as two weeks, or take as long as 6 months; it will depend on the growing conditions.
Stem cuttings can also be used to propagate bay laurels. You will need a stem cutting of around 6 inches in length from a semi-ripe stem. This is a stem which is neither old and brittle nor brand new and too flexible. Remove all of the lower leaves from the stem cutting, dip the cut end in rooting hormone, and insert it into moist soil. This is best done indoors in a small pot so that you can control the light and heat levels.
You will need to maintain moist soil and keep the cutting in the shade. Bay laurels do not propagate easily, and their success rate is somewhat hit and miss. To increase chances of success, propagate several stems at once. They can take many months to grow roots, so you might need to be patient.
Once roots have developed, new leaves will start to appear above the soil. At this point, you can transplant the cutting to a larger pot. When it gains strength at around 12 inches tall, you can plant it outside or into its outdoor container.
Bay laurels are popular ornamental trees and can be pruned to almost any shape you like. Popular shapes for bay laurels are spherical or pyramid-shaped trees, though you can also train it to grow as a shrub instead of a tree.
As a shrub, bay laurels make good borders or screens. To grow the plant as a shrub, simply allow the suckers, which sprout from the roots, to grow up into their own branches. Prune back the lengths of stems and keep the height low, as this will encourage the plant to spread wider rather growing upward. Bay laurels have dense foliage, so they will form shrubs easily if they are pruned effectively.
To grow the plant as a tree, select one main branch to be the central trun, and remove all other branches growing from the soil. Once a tree shape has been established, you will want to annually prune your bay laurel to keep it neat or maintain a desired shape. An annual pruning is best carried out in late winter to avoid disturbing new growth. Remove any damaged branches with sharp, clean shears, and if the tree is becoming too dense, you can thin it out by pruning away crossing stems and branches. This is vital for the plant's health to allow good airflow and light penetration. You should also remove any suckers that appear from the soil, cutting them as close to the soil level as possible.
Harvest & Uses
People harvest the bay laurel plant parts that can be used, including the leaves, essential oil, and sometimes the fruits.
To harvest, just pick up the leaves from mature plants for a more intense & fragrant flavor. You can harvest all year round.
Their leaves can be served either fresh or dry in the kitchen. With their bitter taste, fresh bay leaves can be used to add flavor for soup, roast , or stew. Dried leaves are more suited to dishes that are cooked longer.
Bay laurel leaves are also known for their oil. Their essential oil can be used for face tonic/spray, lymphatic shower massage, hair growth, and for making tea to combat digestive issues as well.
How do you grow your Bay Laurel? Let us know below, and don’t forget to share this page with others who may be interested!