Bay laurel is an elegant ornamental plant. Sacred to both the Greeks and Romans, the plant is best known for its pungent foliage, which is commonly used as a culinary seasoning.
Originating in the Mediterranean, bay laurel is commonly grown as a sun loving evergreen shrub. If allowed to, these plants can grow into surprisingly tall trees. Luckily regular pruning and a slow growth habit means that it is easy to keep the plant in check. In the spring some varieties produce flowers and berries which sit on top of the plants attractive foliage.
An ideal ornamental plant, when grown in pots bay laurel is an elegant way to frame a doorway or line a path. Like boxwood, bay laurel is well suited to pruning into topiary shapes. It is also a great addition to a herb garden and can be grown as a houseplant.
Versatile and easy to care for, here is your go-to guide for growing a bay laurel plant.
Low maintenance and versatile, bay laurel is an attractive addition to the garden.
Warning. Bay laurel has long been seen as a medicinal plant. Its foliage has been used to treat rheumatism, earaches and also as an insect repellent. Soaking the leaves in water is also a common way to counter the effects of poison ivy.
However, the foliage of some sweet bay varieties can irritate sensitive skin. If you are worried, wear gloves when handling the plant.
Different Varieties of Bay Laurel
There are a number of different bay laurel varieties available. If you want to use the foliage of bay laurel for seasoning, only use plants in the Laurus nobilis genus. While other cultivars are attractive they are not necessarily edible.
Its versatility, as both an ornamental and edible plant, means that L. nobilis is the most commonly cultivated variety. Also known as common bay, L. nobilis, is a reliable plant that produces masses of aromatic, dark green foliage.
For something a little different, try the cultivar Aurea. This is an aromatic plant that produces fresh, yellow foliage.
For many people the useful foliage of the bay laurel plant is the main draw.
Angustifolia or willow-leaf laurel, is known for its narrow, wavy pale green foliage. Angustifolia is pleasingly hardier than more common bay laurel cultivars.
Another attractive ornamental variety is Laurus nobilis Undulata. This cultivar produces leaves that are rippled along the edges.
Take the time to explore the range of available plants and purchase something that suits your garden. You will find the plants at many good garden stores. If you want a greater variety of choice you may need to visit a specialist nursery. These often offer a wider range of plants, and can provide you with specialist care information related to your growing zone, as well as answering any specific questions you may have.
Where to Plant Your Bay Laurel
Bay laurel plants like light. Outside they grow best in full sun or partial shade positions.
Bay laurel is hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 10. Some varieties are also hardy in zone 7. In warmer zones the plant is considered a perennial. Provide plants growing in the warmest USDA Zones with some afternoon shade. This should protect the foliage from becoming sunburnt in the heat of the afternoon sun.
Despite being a frost sensitive plant, bay laurel can tolerate temperatures down to 20 ℉.
In cooler areas, where winter temperatures may fall below 20 ℉, grow the plants in pots. They can then be moved inside or to a sheltered position when temperatures begin to fall. Alternatively, cover the plant with a horticultural fleece during the winter months. These Frost Protection Cover Bags are durable and have a drawstring attached. This makes them easy to use and secure in place, meaning that they won’t be blown away during winter storms.
Planting in a sheltered position helps to protect plants from light frosts. It also helps to protect your plants from strong winds.
Bay laurel plants are pleasingly resilient if planted in the right conditions. Well-draining soil is key. These plants do not tolerate poorly draining soil. Before planting use a shovel to work compost or organic matter into heavier or poor soils. This enriches and lightens the soil, improving drainage.
The plants do best in soil that has a pH level of 6 to 7 but can tolerate a pH range of between 4.5 and 8.3. If you are unsure of the makeup of your soil, a soil test kit provides you with all the information that you need.
Begin amending the soil a few weeks to a month before you intend planting.
If you have particularly poor soil, try planting in a large pot or raised bed.
Planting in a favorable position encourages more foliage and flowers to emerge. The flowers can attract pollinators to your garden.
If you are growing indoors, place the plant near a sunny windowsill during the winter months.
Don’t place your plants too close to heaters or in drafty positions. These two elements can affect the humidity levels around the plant. Leaf drop is the most obvious sign that the humidity levels around the plants are not high enough.
Regularly misting the plant, helps to maintain humidity levels. Placing the plant on a tray filled with pebbles and water also keeps humidity levels high. Make sure that the pot isn’t touching the water, this can cause soil to become waterlogged and can lead to roots becoming rotten. Remember to top up the water levels in the tray regularly.
How to Plant
If you are planting bay laurel outside, planting is best done in the spring, after the last local frost date has passed. This gives the plant time to establish itself in its new position before it flowers in the summer.
Dig a hole in the soil large enough to hold the plant’s root ball. When placed in the hole the plant should sit at roughly the same depth as when it was in its pot.
When you are happy with the position of the plant, carefully backfill the hole. Take care not to sink your bay laurel as you plant. Firm down the soil and water well.
If you are planting more than one bay laurel, space your plants about 6 ft apart.
Planting in Pots
For planting in a container garden, your pot should be at least 12 inches in size. Plant large tree varieties that are around 4 to 6 ft in size in 24 inch pots.
Try to select a pot with as broad a base as possible. This prevents the tree from toppling when it is in full bloom and in danger of becoming top heavy.
Your chosen pot should be clean and have drainage holes in the bottom. Planting in self-watering containers is a great choice if you want a low maintenance garden.
Fill about a third of the pot with fresh, multipurpose potting soil. Position the bay laurel in the center of the pot, the top of the plant’s root system should sit just below the top of the pot. You may need to add more soil or take some away to get the level just right. When you are happy with the position of the plant, fill the pot with more potting soil. .
Firm the soil down and water well.
Plants growing in pots require repotting every 3 to 5 years. Don’t be in a hurry to repot. I have found that bay laurel likes sitting in slightly compacted conditions, and often produces more foliage as it begins to outgrow its pot.
How to Care for Bay Laurel
Once planted, bay laurel care is a straightforward process.
Remember to regularly weed around the base of your plant. This is particularly important just after planting and when the tree is actively growing. Weeds can quickly harvest water and nutrients from the soil, depriving your ornamental plants and stunting their growth.
These plants have a shallow root system, which can be accidentally damaged by weeding. To prevent this, many people opt to lay an organic mulch around the base of the plants. This prevents weed growth and, as it breaks down, returns nutrients to the soil, giving your plants an added boost.
You can also make your own weed killer at home. These solutions are effective and chemical free.
When to Water
As we have already noted, bay laurel has a shallow root system. This means that the plants require regular watering during dry periods.
Allow the soil to dry out between waterings. This helps to prevent root rot.
While the soil should be allowed to dry out, don’t allow your bay plants to sit in dry soil. This can cause the plants to become dormant and start dropping their leaves.
Knowing when to water plants, and in particular houseplants can be difficult. A device such as the Gouven Soil Moisture Meter is a reliable, easy to use gadget that reliably measures the moisture content of your soil.
Fertilizing Your Plants
This is a slow growing plant. Consequently, when planted in the ground, in good soil the bay laurel rarely requires fertilizer.
If you do want to give the plants a boost, remove the top few inches of soil every year, and top dress with fresh compost. This gives the plants a helpful boost. Just be careful not to damage the plant’s root system.
Plants growing in containers will benefit from a dose of a balanced organic fertilizer, such as fish emulsion. This can be applied once in the spring, as new growth emerges, and again in the summer. Liquid fertilizers are easily incorporated into watering routines.
Liquid and water soluble fertilizers can be diluted into a watering can. This makes it easy to incorporate fertilizing plants into your watering routine.
Pruning Your Bay Laurel
If allowed to, these plants can reach up to 60 ft in height. Growing in containers and regularly pruning helps to contain this growth habit.
How and what you prune depends on why you are growing bay laurel. Plants grown for topiary purposes require more pruning than shrubs and plants that are allowed to mature into a fuller shape or size.
Pruning is best done in the spring as new growth emerges. Begin by pruning away any dead or damaged foliage and branches.
A small garden scissors easily removes young and softwood. A larger tool such as a lopper or saw may be needed to remove older or thicker growth. Remember to clean and sterilize your tools before and after using.
Always use sharp tools when pruning. This enables you to make precise and clean cuts.
Try to limit the height of container plants to about 6 ft. This keeps them at a manageable height for when you need to move or re-pot them.
If you want to confine your shrub to a compact or manageable shape, cut branches back to the lower leaves or buds. Cut away any branches that are emerging too far down the plant and threaten to distort the even shape of the plant.
Pay particular attention to the center of the plant. If growth here becomes too dense, air and light can struggle to reach the central area of the plant. This can lead to the plant becoming unhealthy.
You should also cut back branches that are contacting or rubbing against other branches. As branches rub against each other, the bark is worn away. This creates an easy access point for pests and diseases. Finally, remove any suckers that are emerging from the base of the plant.
Prune topiary plants in the summer. This encourages dense growth to form. As you prune, cut this year’s growth down to a leaf node that faces in the desired direction of growth. This helps the plant to maintain a balanced shape.
Mature plants can survive a harsh pruning, but regrowth is slow. Gradually pruning harshly over a few years allows the plants to maintain some old greenery while new foliage emerges.
Finally, if frost does affect your plant you will notice the foliage drying out and turning brown. A healthy plant can recover from light frosts without intervention. If signs of die-back are still visible in the spring, prune away affected or damaged stems. Allow only healthy parts to remain. New growth soons emerges and fills in any gaps.
How to Propagate
While propagation from seed is possible, it can take a long time. Also, bay laurel plants are dioecious. This means that you need a male and female plant to produce viable seeds.
Other propagation methods, such as taking cuttings or air layering are easier and faster.
Propagation via Cuttings
The best time to take your cuttings is during midsummer. At this stage new growth will be semi-ripe. Softwood cuttings can also be taken, these are best taken in late spring or early summer.
Cut a healthy 6 inch section from the end of a stem. Remove most of the leaves, allow on the top few to remain in place. Plant each cutting in a pot filled with fresh, moist compost. Dipping the cut end in rooting hormone encourages roots to emerge. Place the cuttings in a propagator, away from direct sunlight and mist.
Cuttings can be difficult to root. They can also take time. As long as your cutting remains healthy, there is still a chance that it will develop roots. Placing your cuttings in a heated propagator, such as the VIVOSUN Heating Seed Starter Propagation Kit, helps you to maintain heat and humidity levels.
To check that roots have formed, gently pull on the cutting. If roots are present, you will feel resistance.
Once roots are present, allow the cuttings to grow on. Water and care for them as you would larger plants. In their second year harden off the cuttings and plant out.
How to Air Layer
Air layering is a slower process than propagating new plants with cuttings. While air layering may be slower, it does have a higher success rate.
Begin by identifying an appropriate stem. It should be long, healthy and at least two years old. Cut away offshoots.
Use a sharp knife to cut into a bud. Wipe the bud in rooting hormone. Wrap the bud and surrounding area in moist sphagnum moss. Cover the moss with a plastic wrap or bag and use a garden tie to secure the bag in place.
Once roots have grown into the moss, cut the stem away from the mother plant. Plant your new plant as described above.
Common Pests and Problems
If cared for correctly bay laurel is a largely pest free plant. In fact it is often seen as a useful companion plant and is used to deter pests from other plants. For this reason, bay laurel is commonly grown alongside Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary and oregano. Beans, olive and citrus plants are also reliable companion plants. Avoid planting near potato plants.
Regularly check plants for signs of scale or aphid infestations. An application of insecticidal soap cures most infestations.
The presence of leaf spot is a sign that your plant is either overwatered or sitting in soil that is too wet. Allow the soil to dry out before watering again. Improve drainage by working in organic compost or horticultural sand. If the plants are growing in pots, the next time you re-pot add crocks to the bottom of the pot. There should also be plenty of drainage holes in the pot.
Old foliage naturally yellows as it is replaced by younger, green foliage. In containers yellowing foliage can be a sign of nutrient deficiency, cold weather damage, or over watering.
Yellowing foliage need not be a sign that your plant is struggling. Foliage naturally yellows as it ages.
How to Harvest
Bay laurel can be harvested at any time of year. However, it is best to wait until the plants are mature, about 2 years old, before regularly harvesting the leaves.
While the foliage is best used fresh it can also be dried and stored in airtight bags or containers. To dry the leaves place them on a tray in a warm dry room for about 2 weeks.
Use stored leaves within a year. Any longer and the foliage begins to lose its distinctive flavor.
As well as a seasoning, the dried leaves can also be used to make decorative wreaths or garlands.
The foliage can be used fresh or dried and stored for up to a year.
Producing attractive yellow flowers in the spring, which sit on top of the plants showy foliage, bay laurel is an elegant ornamental plant. Not only is it attractive it is also useful and versatile. As well as providing ornamental interest all year round, these are reliable companion plants and can also be used to add flavor to your cooking.
Whether you are growing bay laurel for its ornamental interest or to utilise its foliage, this is an elegant, easy to grow plant. By following the steps laid out in this guide, bay laurel will grace your home for many years to come.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.