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Bay Laurel: How to Grow – Herb of the Month

Bay stats/requirements at a glance

Ease of Raising:5/5 – Very Easy, plant and leave
Water:4/5 – Daily
Sun:5/5 – Full sun
Training:1/5 – Minimal (3Ds: Dead, damaged and diseased)
Fertilise/Feeding:1/5 – Minimal (at least during the growing season)
Time to Harvest:1/5 – Immediate, yet slow growing
Frost Hardiness:1/4 – Very tender (can’t cope with light frost), cold tolerant
  
Uses:Culinary
Most Problematic Nemesis:Scale, aphids
Container Plant:Yes
Bay laurel Laurus nobilis Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz 1885 Kurt Steuber
Bay laurel Laurus nobilis Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz 1885 Kurt Steuber Online Library

Quick intro

Bay laurel is a lovely upright tree of which its leaves constitute a major part of cooking. It is a staple in Mediterranean cooking and imparts it wonderful flavour to stews, soups, sauces and is a key ingredient in the classic bouquet garni. As a hardy tree it is easy to grow, although a bit slow to do so. As a bonus it can be planted in pots to restrict its growth in confined spaces or in small gardens so that it can be enjoyed by both gardeners and cooks alike!

History

Bay has been a prominent plant for culinary use in both the Mediterranean and Asia Minor where it has its origins. Its history is also steeped in symbolism and mythology. Romans crowned the victorious with a laurel wreath and to the Greeks it denoted honour and wisdom (hence the Nobel laureate awards). In Greek mythology the water nymph Daphne is transformed into a bay tree during her pursuit by love-struck Apollo.

Apollo and Daphne 1622 - 1625 by,
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 - 1680)

Science Stuff

Bay, Laurus nobilis, belongs to the avocado family Lauraceae, which also includes cinnamon. It contains of a volatile aromatic oil cineole, which is the same oil found in Eucalyptus (eucalyptol) and contributes to its distinct flavour.

Growing & Pruning Bay

Bay is very easy to grow once you have placed it in a sunny position with good draining soil and regular watering. It is cold tolerant but will become damaged due to frost, therefore some shelter or frost fleece is necessary in frost prone areas. It is a very slow grower so some patience is required in order to receive abundant leaves for regular cooking. It can become a very large tree in an open garden; up to 20 meters under special circumstances!

Bay laurel, Laurus nobilis, tree, plant

It makes an exceptional pot specimen both for the smaller herb garden and as a handsome ornamental tree. Bay trees are very good for topiary designs, but as I mentioned they do grow slowly so shaping will be a several year project.

Other Tips

Pruning of the bay tree is hardly necessary unless you want a single stem or topiary specimen. I find that mine grows excruciatingly slow and hence I do not prune it at all.

Bay laurel, Laurus nobilis, fresh leaves, tree, plant

Aphids can infest new growth and scale might become a problem during the winter months. Both of the pest species I have discussed in their separate articles as well as developing environmental friendly homemade pest control for each. See my Biological and Green Pest Control section for more information.

Harvesting & Storing

Fresh bay leaves are preferable in cooking as the cineole oil, which is essential for flavour, completely evaporates from the dried leaves after a year of storage.

Bay laurel, Laurus nobilis, cineole oil, aromatic oil

Leaves are hard and should be removed from the dish prior to serving. The essential oil present in the leaves and berries can be toxic in large doses as well as causing an allergic reaction to some when used externally.

Seed Saving & Propagation

I have never seen bay flowers personally as mine has never bloomed, but they do produce minimally scented, waxy pale yellow flowers in late spring. These are followed by single-seeded, dark green to black berries in autumn.

It is not common to propagate bay from seed as it takes anywhere from 5-12 months for the seeds to germinate. Other propagation techniques include semi-hardwood cuttings in summer from the current year’s growth as well as plant division in spring or autumn.   

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