LAURUS NOBILIS: Bay Laurel
A plant of much renown and lore, bay is an essential culinary herb with a long history. The Latin name, Laurus nobilis, means praise and nobility. In ancient Greece, one of the highest honors one could receive was a wreath made from bay. Even today, bay remains a symbol of victory and honor (think of the words baccalaureate, or poet laureate). Bay leaves are used either fresh or dry to flavor all kinds of savory recipes, from soups and stews to rice or meat dishes. Leaves are left whole to cook, but are not themselves eaten because they are stiff and sharp and can potentially cause damage to the mouth or throat if ingested. The leaves are said to repel pantry moths when placed in cupboards.
Though it is native to the rocky shores of the Mediterranean, bay is surprisingly easy to grow in the Pacific Northwest. In its native habitat, the slow-growing tree can reach heights of 40 feet or more, but home-grown bay usually remains much smaller. It can easily be pruned into a bushy shrub, small tree, or even a topiary form. Bay can be a bit frost-tender (it will suffer if temperatures fall too far below freezing, and may die in more severe cold), and does not prefer soggy soils, but if precautions are taken against frost and soil is amended to promote good drainage, bay is a care-free plant.
If you want to grow your bay tree in the ground, identify a warm microclimate in your yard. A south-facing wall near a building, or a brick or stone structure will retain heat and help keep your plant cozy. Also be sure to choose a place that is protected from potential wind. Keep a frost blanket on hand and cover the plant when temperatures threaten to fall below 25 degrees F. Mulching around the base of the plant with leaves or straw can help insulate the soil, but be sure to remove the mulch in the spring to allow the soil to warm up and dry out more quickly.
Bay is also well suited to container culture. Since it is quite slow-growing, it can live a long time in a pot. This is ideal if you have a very small garden, or if your climate is cold enough to where you’ll need to bring the plant inside for the winter. Indoors, situate the plant in a very bright window, or provide supplemental light with a full-spectrum bulb. Keep the plant away from direct heat sources, and mist leaves occasionally.
Some varieties you can find at Portland Nursery:
There are only a few varieties of bay available, but they are all evergreen and good for culinary use.
Laurus nobilis ‘Angustifolia’
Willow-leaf bay. Long, slender leaves and compact habit.
Laurus nobilis ‘Aureus’
Golden-leaf bay. New growth is bright gold.
Photo Credit to Doreen Wynja, Monrovia.
FACTS: LAURUS NOBILIS
Genus: Laurus nobilis
Common Name: Bay laurel, sweet bay, culinary bay
Origin: Mediterranean region
Culture: Evergreen in zones 8 and up, bay is considered somewhat tender in the Portland area. Outdoors, grow in full sun and very well-drained soil. Amend heavy soils with plenty of compost, and add pumice to increase drainage. Situate the plant in a warm spot, such as near a south-facing wall, and protect from the wind. In-ground planted bay is drought tolerant once established. If your bay tree is in a pot, use a good-quality, fast-draining potting soil. Provide as much light as possible for plants grown indoors for the winter, and let the soil dry fairly well between waterings.
Maintenance: Bay plants are not heavy feeders, but an application of organic all-purpose or tree/shrub fertilizer in spring and again in midsummer will keep your in-ground plant healthy and happy. For container-planted bay, a regular feeding schedule is essential, although it’s still important not to over-fertilize. Use a balanced organic fertilizer about three times a year: in spring, summer, and early fall for best results. Re-pot as necessary, when the roots start to come out the bottom of the pot. Pruning can be done to shape the plant as desired.
Pests and Diseases: Bay is generally not bothered by many problems. Powdery mildew is sometimes an issue. Situating the plant in a very sunny location, pruning out crowded branches to promote air circulation, and letting soil dry between waterings usually takes care of any mildew. Outdoors, certain moths occasionally lay eggs between leaves, and the larvae can chew holes, though outbreaks are not usually bad enough to greatly disfigure the plant. If you see two bay leaves stuck together with a cottony substance, peel them apart and destroy any caterpillars you find. Indoor plants may be affected by scale. Watch for waxy spots on stems and leaves, and remove with cotton swabs dipped in rubbing alcohol.
Propagation: Bay can be propagated by digging up rooted suckers that occur either naturally or from layering. Propagation by stem cuttings is also possible, but they may take a very long time to root. Starting from seed is tricky, as bay seeds can take months to germinate under specific conditions. Bay plants are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers occur on separate plants, and each are needed to produce fruit and seed. Bay trees can take decades to become mature enough to flower. Purchasing potted bay from the Nursery is by far the easiest and most reliable source of plants!