Tomato sauce and bouquet garni wouldn’t be the same without bay leaves. But can we grow bay at home? Let’s find out.
Bay leaves come from the bay laurel tree. Also known as sweet bay, true laurel, and Grecian laurel, these trees are not to be confused with California bay laurel or cherry laurel. We’ll learn more about them in a minute.
Bay laurels (Laurus nobilis) are evergreen shrubs or small trees native to the Mediterranean basin. Bay forests once covered that region. As humidity levels dropped and temperatures rose, the laurel forests retreated, and more drought-tolerant species moved in.
Uses for bay laurel
Bay leaves flavor more than your favorite spaghetti sauce. Bay leaves can add flavor to stocks, stews, and other savory dishes. Dried bay laurel berries are also spices, and burning the wood creates a unique smoke flavoring. But that’s not all.
In ancient times, high-status bay laurel wreaths donned the heads of Olympic athletes and political leaders. Laurel oil was said to treat bruises, ear aches, paralysis, rheumatism, and sciatica, but I think they took things a bit far. More recently, bay leaves have been applied as an astringent to treat small wounds. The oil is popular in massage and aroma therapies. It is an ingredient in Aleppo soap. The fragrance certainly is relaxing.
Bay laurel description
Many of us are familiar with smooth, lance-shaped bay leaves. They are shiny and dark green while fresh. Trees can grow more than 50 feet tall, but most people keep theirs pruned to heights of two to eight feet. These plants produce small, yellowish-green flowers. The fruit of bay laurel is a small, shiny purplish-black drupe
How to grow bay laurel
Bay laurel plants can be grown from seed or cuttings. The easiest way is to buy a bare-root tree. These trees are dioecious, so some are male, and some are female. Since we mostly grow them for their leaves, this isn’t a problem. If you want berries, however, you’ll need one of each to get a crop.
These shrubs lend themselves very well to the home garden in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 through 10. You can also grow them as containerized indoor plants. A 5-gallon pot is big enough. Bay laurel prefers full sun to light shade. If grown indoors, it will need lots of bright direct sunlight.
Bay laurel prefers slightly acidic soil with good drainage. These trees benefit from wind protection, so select a site with that in mind. You can use bay laurel as a topiary, shaping and twisting it to your heart’s delight.
Bay pests and diseases
Bay laurel trees protect themselves against most pests and diseases. Soft scale (Coccus hesperidum) and jumping plant lice (Trioza alacris) are two insect exceptions. Phytophthora root rot and leaf spot and shot hole disease make also occur.
Yellowing leaves on bay laurel often mean they need more nitrogen. A lab-based soil test is a good idea.
And what about those other laurels? It is not safe to assume they are all the same. Some of them are poisonous. And others can be a real headache.
Here's a summary of those other laurels:
So, you can grow an edible bay laurel tree at home. It makes a lovely houseplant and a great addition to your dinner menu.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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