bay laurel, herbs

Bay Laurel

Did you know that the bay leaf you just dropped into your sauce comes from a tree? Bay laurel is an evergreen tree that is native to the Mediterranean area. It is hardy in zones 8 through 10. When grown in the ground, it can reach a height of 30′ to 60′ although it can be pruned into a topiary or even a hedge. It prefers well-drained soil and grows well in sun or partial shade.

North of zone 8, bay laurel is grown in containers and either grown entirely indoors or set outdoors during warm weather and then brought indoors during the winter. Bay laurel grows well in containers as long as you keep it pruned to a maximum height of 6′. Pruning should be done mid- spring. Use supplemental light indoors and keep your tree away from drafts near windows and doors. It is sensitive to the cold.

Because it is native to a dry part of the world, bay laurel is drought tolerant. It is best to give it a good watering and then allow it to dry out completely between waterings. If grown in a container, it will require fertilizer which should be applied in the spring.

Bay laurel is a dioecious plant, with male and female flowers on separate plants. It flowers in the spring and if there is a tree of the opposite sex nearby, it will produce purple berries in the fall. Each berry contains one seed.

It is difficult to grow bay laurel from seed because the seeds take up to 6 months to germinate. Bay laurel can be propagated by cuttings taken in the late summer which should then be overwintered in a humid environment such as a greenhouse or conservatory. Most of us buy our bay laurels as plants.

Bay Laurel Leaves DryingFresh leaves are too bitter to be used in cooking. They should be dried first. Drying bay laurel leaves is easy. You can use leaves from your spring pruning or just pick leaves off of your tree. You can begin harvesting leaves from your tree after it reaches a height of 2 feet. Try to use the largest leaves. They have more flavor because they contain more of the essential oil (eucolyptol) used to flavor your soups, stews and sauces. Lay the leaves on a paper towel in a cool, dark spot for about a week. Then store them in an airtight glass jar. They can be stored for up to a year. Freshly dried bay leaves have a superior flavor to the dried leaves you buy at the store.

Bay laurel is useful for more than cooking. It is also ornamental and can be used in wreaths and garlands. It pays to have at least one bay laurel tree on hand.

16 Comments on “Bay Laurel”

  1. Pingback: A Bay Laurel in My Kitchen | Advice From The Herb LadyAdvice From The Herb Lady

  2. I have just started a ltlite herb garden in my backyard. So far I have one raised planter with Oregano, Rosemary & Lavander. I have it in direct sunlight outside. I also hav a smaller plant pot with two kinds of Basil and I was thinking of adding Parsley to it today, it wasn’t doing good next to the Oregano planter so I moved it to the shaded window ledge. Should I bring it inside and can I put the Parsley in with the Basil?Thanks in advance

    1. You can plant parsley and basil together, however, neither one will do well in the shade. If you bring your container indoors, you will need to provide supplemental lighting. Light from your windows will not be enough.

  3. I have a one year old bay plant in a pot that is 18 high with not a single lateral branch. Should I cut it back and if so, how much? Thank you for this very helpful article.

    1. No, I would not cut it back just yet. Bay laurel is a tree and grows much slower than herbaceous plants like basil. If your plant is healthy and producing leaves, then it should be fine. It will eventually develop branches.

  4. I live in Jacksonville, Florida and grow Bay Laurel trees from cuttings I take on new growth, also on “suckers” that I dig up around established plants. I do purchase seed from Richter’s Herbs in June and get some plants started. Richter’s only have seeds available in May and June and they come packaged damp as if seeds dry out they will not germinate. I do not agree that one must dry the leaves for better flavor. We cut healthy leaves and use in soups, stews, sauces without a problem and believe the flavor much better than dried. I have also harvested new leaves by grinding them up for a paste to use in soups with excellent results. For the lady with the 18″ high Bay tree, I would suggest she top it out and it will put out lateral branches. I have had insects chew off the top of my seedlings and notice those are much fuller later due to nature helping me out. Visit Cunningham’s Herbs on facebook and see some of my Bay trees.

  5. Will it work to plant a small (1 gallon) Sweet Bay plant in the center of a large pot with 2 inch Wooly Thyme around the circumference?

    1. Unfortunately, no. Bay Laurel trees can grow quite large. The only way to keep them small enough to fit a container is to remove them from their container and prune their roots each spring. This would disturb and probably kill anything else growing in the same container.

  6. My bay tree is greater than 5 years old. It has never flowered. Would love to have flowers and berries eventually. Don’t know how to achieve this. Any advice.

    1. Are you fertilizing your bay laurel? Is it in a container that is large enough? If you only have one bay laurel, you will never have berries. Each tree is either male or female. You need both a male and female tree to have berries.

  7. There are bay trees growing wild in the woods here they’re very tall and about this time of year or last month they have lots of small white flowers that look a lot like a mini Magnolia blossom. I always thought these were bay laurel and the same as we used in stews etc. You can see them along the Highway.

  8. I live in Istria, Croatia and have ten or so mature bay trees growing on my property, only some of which fruit. I have three questions: 1) Is it possible to tell male & female trees apart, if so, how? 2) One tree in particular produces a lot of fruit (that the birds love). Can I press the fruit for oil? 3) Where can I find technical literature on the oil? For instance, type of press, how to process the oil, oil properties, safety issues, etc.

    1. You can tell male trees from female trees by the flowers. Male flowers have stamens which contain pollen to fertilize the female flowers. Female flowers have pistils which contain the ovary of the plant. As far as I know bay laurel essential oil is made from the leaves, not the fruit. The oil is obtained by a distillation process.

  9. Five years ago my wife & I bought a house in central Florida. We started to clean up the back yard. My wife noticed a four foot shrub and started to dig it out where I suggested to leave it alone because we didn’t know what it was, certainly not a weed. The “weed” started to get taller, eventually branching into a tree. Four years later at 15 feet tall the tree burst into flowering, then green berries appeared, which the later turned black. At breakfast we noticed the tree shaking violently. Hundred of robins were flying in and out of the tree stripping the tree of its black berries. Curiosity got the best of me so I decided to find out what kind of a tree we thought years ago was a weed. Using leaves and berries from the tree as a guide I finally discovered it to be a bay laurel tree. We checked with comparing its leaves with bay leaves from our spice rack and sure enough, a perfect match. Since we have plenty room in the back yard, we are now considering adding a few more bay laurel trees as they are such beautiful trees an we would love to have more birds visit us in the near future.

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