RHS Gardening: Growing and Caring for Laurus Nobilis, Also Known as Bay Tree.
The bay tree is a beloved shrub that remains green throughout the year and can be grown in a container or planted in the ground. When appropriately pruned, its lush, dark green leaves can be shaped into breathtaking formal designs that elevate an entrance or adorn a patio. Bay leaves can be used to flavor soups, stews, and other dishes and are available dried or fresh.
Commonly known as: Bay tree, sweet bay, bay laurel
Botanical name: Laurus nobilis
Group: Evergreen shrub
Flowering time: Spring
Planting time: April through September
Height and Spread: Up to 7.5m (23ft) if unclipped
Aspect: Full sun or partial shade
Hardiness: Generally tolerates temperatures down to -5°C (23°F), but in sheltered positions, it can withstand even lower temperatures when planted in the ground.
Cultivation notesThere are various methods to grow bay, and it grows exceptionally well in containers, especially when they are located in a sheltered spot and consistently watered. Bay also thrives in the garden as a large, bushy shrub or small tree that can grow up to 7.5 meters (23ft) or more. Additionally, bay can be shaped into topiaries, resulting in pyramidal, ball, or "lollipop" shapes, with some featuring intricately braided or skillfully spiral-trained stems.
Bay requires a well-drained soil and prefers a sunny or partially shaded location that is sheltered.
Container cultivationUse a blend of soil-based John Innes No 2 compost or soilless compost, adding additional grit to improve drainage and stability. Water containerized bay plants sparingly, as excessive watering can lead to root damage. Apply controlled-release fertilizer granules to the compost or a liquid feed every two weeks between mid-spring and late summer. Repot bay every two years in the spring. Over time, compost breaks down, and even if you do not repot the plant regularly, periodically lifting the plant out of the pot to remove a third of the roots and add fresh compost while checking drainage is a good practice. Each year, remove and replace the top 5cm (2in) of compost from the container. Bay is well-tolerated down to -5°C (23°F), but frost and cold winter winds can harm the foliage. To protect plants, wrap them in a fleece or temporarily relocate them indoors to an unheated room or garage (up to 10°C (50°F)) when temperatures drop below -5°C. Container-grown plants' roots may be harmed by frost that penetrates the pot in the winter. Bubble wrap can be used to insulate the pot's exterior. Using pot feet (or bricks) to lift the container off the ground allows for adequate drainage and safeguards against frost damage to the pot. Plants growing in the ground may undergo cold or wind damage to their current season's growth, which can be pruned away in the spring. Small greenish-yellow male or female flowers appear in the spring, and female plants produce black berries.
Shaping and Training
Training and shaping your bay tree depends on your intended purpose. If you are growing a topiary, use secateurs to trim during the summer to encourage a dense habit and maintain its shape. For shrubs, simply cut back to a lower leaf or bud in the spring or summer to shape. Refer to shrubs and trees: light pruning for additional advice. Lightly prune in the late spring to remove winter-damaged leaf tips. Mature bay trees can withstand hard pruning; however, it is a slow process, and should be done over two or three seasons in the late spring.
There are various ways to increase the number of bay trees in your garden:
- Bay seeds can be collected in the autumn. Remove the fleshy outer casing and sow immediately. If using dried or purchased seed, soak in warm water for 24 hours before sowing.
- Take semi-ripe cuttings in late summer or softwood cuttings in early summer.
- Layering can be successful, but it is slower than other methods of propagation.
There are only a couple of bay cultivars to choose from:
- Laurus nobilis 'Aurea' AGM has golden-yellow foliage.
- Laurus nobilis AGM is the most commonly cultivated and utilized for culinary purposes.
- Laurus nobilis f. angustiolia (willow-leaved laurel) has thinner leaves than bay trees, but they are still edible.
Refer to RHS Find a Plant and AGM plants for additional information.
Watch out for these common problems with bay trees:
- Leaf spots - usually caused by waterlogged roots or wet weather conditions. Plants in containers are more likely to have this problem, indicating old or tired compost. In the spring, repot your plant in new, well-drained compost.
- Yellow leaves - older leaves will naturally shed in low numbers. However, nutrient deficiencies can be an issue in container-grown plants. Usually, waterlogged compost or cold weather damage are the most common causes of this.
The bark of bay trees has been peeling and cracking on their lower main stems due to harsh winters. Although the cause of this phenomenon is still unclear, it is likely that the cold weather and changing soil moisture levels have contributed to the problem. While this damage may look concerning, it does not necessarily mean that the plant will die. If the rest of the bay tree is growing normally or recovering well from winter damage, there is no need to take action. However, if the growth above the damaged area is dead, the dead parts should be removed by cutting them to healthy wood or near soil level. Recovery often occurs from lower down or even from the soil level.
In addition to peeling bark, bay trees may also experience brown leaves and insect infestations from bay sucker, soft scale, and horse chestnut scale. Despite these problems, bay trees are relatively resistant to rabbits, making them a good choice for gardens that are prone to rabbit nibbling.
Don't forget to join the Royal Horticultural Society for access to helpful tools such as the Gardeners' Calendar and My Garden, which offers reminders and care tips for your plants to help ensure a successful growing season. By joining now, you can get involved with the UK's leading gardening charity and enrich your life through plants, while making the country a greener and more beautiful place.
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