Home GardenHerbs & Sprouts A Sacred Herb: Bay Laurel

A Sacred Herb: Bay Laurel

by a Friendly Gardener
Bay laurel in a masson jar

If you’ve ever placed bay leaves in a soup or stew, you already know the value of this flavorful herb when added to your cuisine. The Bay Leaf tree is a slow grower, and its leaves are used specifically for seasoning when cooking. But have you ever considered where they come from, and how they are grown? If you are passionate about herb gardening, this is one herb to consider for its aromatic properties.

A member of the Lauraceae family, this tree or evergreen shrub is native to the Mediterranean and as such is used frequently in the Mediterranean diet. Leaves can be used whole without grinding them down in numerous recipes.


All About Bay Laurel

Bay laurel leaves

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, bay laurel was regarded as a sacred herb. Bay Laurel trees were planted in the vicinity of temples and bay leaves were burned regularly during sacred rituals. Today when Italians complete their university studies, they are crowned with wreaths made of fresh bay laurel leaves. So, this plant and its foliage bear the noblest of meanings from ancient times and still today.

Often used in herb bouquets for casseroles and stews, bay laurel takes its rightful place among sage, thyme, and rosemary, in delighting the palates of fans of Mediterranean dishes. If you see a large deep green oval pointed leaf in the middle of a stew, you are most likely looking at a bay leaf.

When cultivated as a tree, this herb will be a medium to large-sized plant with many stems dense with rich green foliage. In the spring, the bay laurel will produce pretty small yellow blooms that become purple berries in the autumn. This is a dioecious plant meaning that it will have a gender. The female blooms require pollinating by a male plant to be able to produce berries.


Bay Laurel Care

Laurel leaves

Bay Laurel can be cultivated directly in your garden as a landscape tree or container. While a free-growing tree may grow from 30 to 60 feet tall, potted versions usually reach four to six feet.

In colder climates, it is generally container cultivated and can be moved indoors depending on the weather.

These plants are attractive as houseplants but thrive when granted a summer vacation outdoors when they should be a little sheltered from full sun exposure.



The bay laurel plant will thrive in a variety of garden soils including clay, loamy, and sandy soil as long as it is well-draining. It will grow happily in both acidic and alkaline soil beds. If you wish to cultivate it in a container, a basic good-quality potting mix will be adequate.



If you want to container-cultivate your plant indoors, it should be positioned near a sunny window, particularly in the winter. Outdoor plants may prefer a bit of shade but adapt well to full sun. If you live in an area with a dry, hot climate, some shade in the afternoons is better.

If you are cultivating to use in cooking, full sun for at least part of the year is said to give leaves more flavor.


Water and Humidity

This plant’s root system is actually quite shallow, so if your area is subject to dry periods, you will want to water it more often. The soil bed should remain consistently moist but not wet. Allow the soil bed to dry out a bit, but never completely, between waterings.

Humidity should be average at about 40%. If you have low humidity in your home, leaves may drop. Consider using a space humidifier, pebble water tray, or misting your plant regularly to combat low humidity.



Bay leaf

For outdoor gardeners, the Bay Laurel can be grown in USDA Hardy Zones 8 to 10. If you are living in a cooler region, cultivate in a container and bring the plant indoors during the winter. It can have cooler temperatures with bright light.

If you have a container plant that spends its summer outdoors when temperatures drop below 50° F. bring the plant indoors. It will need a bit more sunlight in winter indoors but temperatures should remain cool.



As a slow-grower, the Bay Laurel does not require a great deal of feeding especially outdoors. Container plants will need fertilizer in the spring and the middle of summer. Use an organic balanced liquid fertilizer. You can also add several inches of topsoil at the beginning of spring to give your plant a boost. Care should always be taken to not disturb shallow delicate roots.



Bay laurel plant

If you plant a Bay laurel tree in your garden and do not prune it, it can grow to sixty feet. With container plants, it is important to keep them pruned so that they are manageable. Pruning is best done outside of the growing season in late winter before spring arrives with new growth. You can shape your tree through pruning and can trim a lot or a little as you desire. Wherever you snip, new growth will appear, so the objective is to control size and shape.


Repotting Bay Laurel

Bay laurel leaves in a jar with pepper

Bay Laurel enjoys being a bit cramped in its container. As a four-to-six-foot tree, it requires a pot that will not allow it to tip over. You can repot your Bay Laurel every four to five years.


Bay Laurel Pests and Diseases

Bay Laurel is not particularly appealing to pests which is great news. They are susceptible to scale and may be infested by typical indoor houseplant pests like spider mites and mealybugs. It’s best to remove bugs manually when possible and treat infested plants with insecticidal soap or organic neem oil.

The Bay Laurel can contract fungal infections such as

  • Anthracnose where leaf tips turn black or brown and then die. Remove any infected leaves and treat the soil bed with a fungicide. This is a systemic internal fungal infection. For severe infections destroy and dispose of the plant.
  • Powdery mildew will create a white powder on foliage. Treat your plant with organic neem oil.
  • Phytophthora root rot can cause the collapse of the bay laurel. Dark streaks that are gummy to the touch may appear on tree bark. Apply a fungicide.

Yellow or brown leaves will indicate excess moisture.


Bay Laurel Toxicity

Bay leaves are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses.


Bay Laurel Propagation

This is an easy tree to propagate with soft-wood cuttings, but as a slow grower, you must be patient.  Follow these simple steps:

  • Using garden shears, cut six-inch lengths from pliable green branches during the summer.
  • Fill containers with coarse sand that is consistently moist. Dip each branch tip in rooting hormone and push it into the growing medium.
  • Cover the containers with loose plastic bags and secure them at the bottom with a rubber band around the container.
  • Position your containers in a warm spot with bright indirect sunlight.
  • In a month or so, roots should develop on your cuttings. You can gently tug a bit. If there is some resistance the root ball is forming. Remove the plastic and continue caring until your new plant is ready for a permanent pot or place outdoors in your garden.


Growing Bay Laurel from Seed

This plant can be grown from seed although it is not easy and requires more than a little patience.

Often less than 50% of seeds germinate.

  • Soak bay laurel seeds for a full 24 hours before sowing.
  • Prepare a seed tray with a soilless seed starter medium. Place seeds over the medium approximately two inches apart and press lightly into the medium.
  • Position your tray in a place with at least eight hours of sun and a temperature of at least 70° F.
  • Mist your tray to maintain the medium dampness until germination takes place.
  • Once the seedlings emerge, wait for each to develop its first two true leaves before moving them to individual pots for further growth.


Bay Laurel Varieties

Bay laurel with pepper spices

If you are cultivating Bay Laurel for Cooking purposes, look for varieties that are labeled Laurus nobilis. Other varieties may be ornamental or even toxic. Consider one of these:


  • Laurus nobilis “Aurea” – new foliage will be bright yellow and aromatic


  • Laurus nobilis “Saratoga” – A perfect landscape tree that features rounded lighter green leaves that are great as a seasoning


  • Laurus nobilis “MonRik” or Little RaguÒa compact sweet bay laurel ideal for cooking


  • Laurus nobilis “Undulata”– rippled leaf edges characterize this lovely ornamental plant


  • Laurus nobilis f. Angustifolia–known as willow-leaf laurel

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