Sweet bay, as the plant is often called, is a handsome, shrublike, semi-tropical tree with evergreen, glossy foliage. Mentioned in Greek and Roman legends, bay was once used to make laurels for honoring poets and athletes. Today herb gardeners prize bay as a flavorful ingredient in soups, stews, and herb and spice blends. It can be grown in a container or in the ground in areas with mild winters.
In the Landscape
In the Coastal and Tropical South, bay can become an impressive landscape tree, growing from 6 to 30 feet tall. Its shape makes it ideal as an informal screen or sheared hedge.
Bay is also an elegant container plant, growing a few inches each year and reaching 4 to 6 feet tall. Bay planted in containers has a variety of decorative landscape uses. Prune the tree to complement a formal design or train it to form a topiary. Use it to fill an empty corner of a terrace or frame an entrance. Bay nicely anchors a container or patio herb garden, providing height when smaller herbs are grouped around its base.
Planting and Care
Bay likes a sunny site, preferably protected by a building or a wall. Plant it in rich, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0. For quickest results, start with a small plant from a nursery. Add a slow-release fertilizer to the soil before or during planting. Be careful not to overwater; let the soil dry out between waterings. You can move bay in a container outdoors in the summer. If you plant bay in a clay pot, you can sink it into the ground until fall to cut down on watering during summer months. Bring potted bay indoors as soon as the weather starts to turn cold. Place it in a cool, sunny room or in a cold frame or greenhouse for the winter.
Mature trees planted outdoors may survive overnight temperature dips to 10 to 15 degrees if they are planted where heat reflected from a wall will keep the plant a few degrees warmer. In the middle and lower South, frozen plants should sprout from the roots the following spring, but it may take years for them to return to their previous size. Feed trees with slow-release fertilizer in March and August.
Start from cuttings of the tips in three to six months, but avoid fresh, new growth as it will not root. Pinch off some of the tips in early summer or late fall. To encourage rooting, gently scrape the bark off opposite sides of the bottom stem to expose the green cambium, or growth layer, just below the bark.
Species and Selections
Bay (Laurus nobilis) sometimes is called true laurel. Do not confuse it with red bay (Persea borbonia), a native Southern tree whose leaves are often used as a milder substitute for bay. The dried leaves of California bay (Umbellularia californica) are occasionally available in supermarkets; their flavor is different and much stronger than that of Laurus nobilis.
Harvest, Storage, and Use
You may harvest bay leaves year-round. Carefully pinch the mature leaves from their woody stems; avoid stripping the bark. Use fresh or dried bay leaves in soups, stews, vegetables, herb blends, bouquets garnis, or potpourris. Remember that fresh leaves are stronger and more aromatic than dry leaves, so use them sparingly. When drying bay leaves, take them off the stem, cover with a towel, and place books on top to flatten the leaves. Remove the books after one week.
Bay is occasionally attacked by scales. Scales may be soft- or hard-bodied insects that cling to the underside of leaves and along stems, sucking the sap from bay.
It is important to control scales when they first appear and while they are looking for a place to feed; they are harder to kill as they get older. The eggs are naturally resistant to pesticides, so you must spray more than once to kill young scales as they emerge. In winter, spray bay's branches with dormant oil to smother the eggs, preventing them from hatching in spring.