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How to Grow Bay Laurel for the Best Bay Leaves

  • Bob Styer
  • Herbs
The Fruits And Leaves Of Bay Laurel.

In this article, we’ll show you how to grow bay laurel from seed.  This can be challenging with bay laurel, so we’ll also discuss the simpler way of starting with a live plant.  If you live below Zone 8, you’ll have to grow it in pots and trim it to grow as a bush.

What is Bay Laurel?

Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) is a native evergreen of the Mediterranean area. This slow-growing perennial has dark green leaves and grows well as a shrub or tree.  When left alone, the bay tree grows 25 – 60 feet tall.  It handles pruning well, so you can also shape it into a 4 – 8 feet tall bush.

In ancient Greece and Rome, military and athletic heroes received laurel crowns as an award.  At least it was cheaper than something made of gold, and watches came centuries later!

For centuries, the laurel signified victory and status.  Laurel was so common as an award it’s even the root of the words “baccalaureate” and “laureate.”  And don’t forget “resting on your laurels.”

To get purple berries in the fall, you’ll need male and female plants.  The male plants must pollinate the yellow female flowers that bloom in the spring. Plants that have two genders, like bay laurel, are “dioecious.”

Bay leaf is a common ingredient for sauces, stir-fries, soups, and stews.  The leaves need removal after cooking because they become bitter and tough.  Also, the edges of the leaves can cut the inside of your mouth.

Bay leaves are a key part of “bouquet garni.”  There aren’t any set recipes for bouquet garni, but French cooking starts with bay leaves, thyme, and parsley stalks.

PET WARNING:  BAY LAUREL LEAVES AND FRUIT ARE TOXIC TO DOGS, CATS, AND HORSES.

Would you like to learn about other herbs? Check out our post “The Complete Guides to Growing Culinary Herbs” for links to those articles.

Bay laurel bush in a pot.
You can grow bay laurel as a bush in a pot…
Baylaurel trees in a grove.
…or as a tree

Types of Bay Laurel

Any bay laurel plant makes an excellent decorative tree or bush.  If you’re growing it to use the bay leaves in food, make sure they’re Laurus nobilis varieties.

Does your herb garden need a bit of shade? Growing bay trees or shrubs could take care of that job.

The confusing part is that other plants called “sweet bay” or “bay” might not be edible.  They could even be poisonous.  The inedible plants aren’t Laurus nobilis varieties.

Bay laurel has two main types:

California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), or California Bay.  This type is a native of California and has a strong, minty taste that can be overpowering.  If you crush the leaves and take a strong sniff, you’ll discover why it also has the name “headache tree.”  The leaves are 3 – 5 inches long.

Sometimes sellers will relabel California bay laurel leaves as Laurus nobilis leaves.

Turkish bay laurel (bay laurus nobilis), or bay laurel, sweet bay, Grecian laurel.  When you’re using bay leaves in cooking, they’re probably the Turkish variety.  These leaves have a subtler, more pleasant taste than California bay laurel.  The leaves are 2 – 4 inches long.

Here are the differences between California bay and bay laurel:

FeatureCalifornia BayBay Laurel
Leaves3 – 5 inches long.2 – 4 inches long.
Fruit Round, ½ – ¾ inches in diameter.Round, ¼ – 3/8 inches in diameter.
FlowersHave both stamens and pistils (monoecious).

Plants can self-pollinate or cross-pollinate.  All plants have fruit.
Flowers have either stamens or pistils (dioecious).
You’ll need a male and female plant to produce fruit with seeds.
Only female plants have fruit.

Laurus nobilis has some notable tasty varieties.  Here’s a list of some of the best:

  • Laurus nobilis Saratoga.  This type has rounder leaves with a lighter green color.  When grown as a tree, it only reaches 25 feet in height.  Its leaves are great for seasoning.
  • Laurus nobilis Aurea.  As its name suggests, this variety has fragrant yellow leaves.
  • Laurus nobilis angustifolia.  This type has narrow leaves, so it also carries the name willow-leaf laurel.
  • Laurus nobilis Undulata.  This type has wavy leaf edges that put it in the decorative plant category.

We also need to give an honorable mention to Tej Patta (Cinnamomum tamala).  This leaf looks like bay laurel and is popular in Indian cuisine.

Tej Patta leaves come from the cassia tree instead of the bay laurel tree.  The leaves give a hint of cinnamon instead of a hint of pine.  For more interesting information about Tej Patta, click on this link.

Preparing the Soil

This plant can grow outside in Zones 8 – 10. North of Zone 8, it has to move indoors and grow as a shrub.

When grown outdoors, it isn’t picky about the soil it grows in.  It needs well-draining soil, but it will be happy in loamy, sandy, or clay soil.  Soil pH isn’t much of an issue either.

Use potting mix when growing the plants in containers.  Remember, ordinary potting soil isn’t good in containers since it gets too dense.

Would you like to know more about soil and soil testing? Please check our articles:

Some Culinary Bay Laurel Plants and Seeds You Can Use

Bay Laurel 'Culinary' - Sweet Bay - Well Rooted Plant in 4' Pot | Ships from Easy to Grow
Bay Laurel 'Culinary' - Sweet Bay - Well Rooted Plant in 4" Pot | Ships from Easy to Grow
Price not available
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18
9GreenBox -2 Set Bay Laurel Herb - 4' Pot Total 2 4' Pot
9GreenBox -2 Set Bay Laurel Herb - 4" Pot Total 2 4" Pot
$14.99
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18
No products found.
No products found.
No products found.
No products found.
No products found.
No products found.
9GreenBox - Bay Laurel Plant One Gallon Live Plant Ornament Decor for Home, Kitchen, Office, Table, Desk - Attracts Zen, Luck, Good Fortune - Non-GMO, Grown in The USA
9GreenBox - Bay Laurel Plant One Gallon Live Plant Ornament Decor for Home, Kitchen, Office, Table, Desk - Attracts Zen, Luck, Good Fortune - Non-GMO, Grown in The USA
$22.99
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18
100pcs Seeds of Laurus nobilis, Bay Laurel, True Laurel
100pcs Seeds of Laurus nobilis, Bay Laurel, True Laurel
$10.50
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18

Growing Bay Laurel from Seeds

Seeds can take almost 6 months to germinate.  This long time may cause them to rot.  To save time and hassle, it’s best to buy saplings.

To start the seeds in seed trays, fill them with an organic seed starting mix. Soak the seeds in warm water for 24 hours or more before planting them.  Because of the long germination time, you can still end up with rotted seeds.

A better way is to try cold stratification:

To grow bay laurel from seeds, you must trick them into thinking they’re in their natural environment.  This means a period of cool, wet weather followed by warm, damp weather.  Simulating winter-to-spring weather is how you do “cold stratification.”

Several other herb seeds need this process.  Rosemary is one of the most well-known types.

Materials needed:

  • Bay laurel seeds.
  • A gallon ziploc bag.
  • A bag of potting mix.
  • Water.

Here are the steps to cold stratify bay laurel seeds:

  1. Start cold stratification in the late fall.
  2. Put a few inches of potting mix in the ziploc bag.
  3. Place the seeds on the potting mix, then moisten it.  This step simulates the seeds lying on the ground during winter.
  4. Seal the bag, but leave 1 – 2 inches open.
  5. The bag must stay around 40o F, so put it on a shelf near the back of the refrigerator.
  6. Check the bag every few days, and mist the soil again if it’s drying out.
  7. After about two months, some seeds should be sprouting.

Once the seeds have sprouted after cold stratification, the next step is to get them into pots.  Do this after the sprouted seeds have been in the refrigerator for two more weeks.

  • Get enough pots for the seedlings.  They should be at least four inches wide and four inches deep.
  • Sterilize the pots by washing them with a mix of 1 part of bleach to 10 parts of water.  Use this same solution to sterilize any tools you’ll use when handling the seedlings.
  • Fill the pots with seed starting mix.
  • Plant the sprouted seeds in the pots about ½ inch deep.
  • When the plants are about six inches tall, transplant them into the garden or containers.

Supplies for Starting Seeds

Espoma Organic Seed Starter Premium Potting Soil Mix - All Natural & Organic Seed Starting Mix with Mycorrhizae. For Organic Gardening, 8 qt, Pack of 2
Espoma Organic Seed Starter Premium Potting Soil Mix - All Natural & Organic Seed Starting Mix with Mycorrhizae. For Organic Gardening, 8 qt, Pack of 2
$22.47
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2024-07-18
Miracle-Gro Potting Mix, For Container Plants, Flowers, Vegetables, Annuals, Perennials, Shrubs, Feeds for up to 6 Months, 16. qt., 2-Pack
Miracle-Gro Potting Mix, For Container Plants, Flowers, Vegetables, Annuals, Perennials, Shrubs, Feeds for up to 6 Months, 16. qt., 2-Pack
$22.93
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18
TDHDIKE 4' Small Plastic Plant Nursery Pot/Pots (100pcs Pots and 100pcs Plant Labels) Seedlings Flower Plant Container (Red) Seed Starting Pots Indoor Outdoor
TDHDIKE 4" Small Plastic Plant Nursery Pot/Pots (100pcs Pots and 100pcs Plant Labels) Seedlings Flower Plant Container (Red) Seed Starting Pots Indoor Outdoor
$9.99
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2024-07-18

How to Propagate Bay Laurel From Cuttings

Bay laurel cuttings take longer to root than most other plants.

  • Take bay laurel cuttings in the summer when the small branches are still pliable and green.
  • The best way is to use a heel cutting. Cut about 2/3 of the way through the stem. Gently break off the stem so that you also strip off about 1/2-inch of bark with the cutting.
  • Trim the heel to 1/2-inch if you get too much bark. Cutting this way increases the chances that the cutting will take root.
  • Start with ten cuttings that are six inches long and easy to bend.
  • Remove all but the top two or three leaves from each cutting.
  • Put the cut ends in a container of water.
  • While the cuttings are soaking, fill small pots with potting mix and thoroughly moisten it.
  • Use a pencil or screwdriver to poke a 3-inch deep hole in the potting mix for each cutting. The pots can hold two or three cuttings each.
  • Dip the cut ends in rooting hormone and put the cut ends in the holes. Press the potting mix so it’s firm around each cutting.
  • Put the pot on a heating pad that’s in a position where the cuttings get indirect sunlight.
  • Keep the potting mix moist. It helps to cover the cuttings with a plastic bag and seal the open end with a rubber band below the lip of the pot.
  • The cuttings will root in 1 – 2 months. Gently tug on the cuttings, and if you get resistance, the roots have formed.

Potting Bay Laurel

Select pots that are at least 24 inches in diameter.  This is a good size for a bush trimmed to 5 – 6 feet tall.

Fill the pots with potting mix and transplant one seedling per pot.  Keep the soil moist but not too wet.  The soil can dry a little between waterings but don’t allow it to dry out completely.

Feed potted plants in the spring.  Use a good organic fertilizer and top off the pot with some fresh potting mix.

Every three years, repot the plants.  Trim the roots by 1/3, and refill the pot with fresh potting mix.  Leave about two inches open on top and fill that space with well-aged compost.

Do you need more information about growing plants in pots? See our article “Growing Vegetables in Containers.”

Caring for Bay Laurel

Bay laurel can handle full sun; the best-tasting leaves come from plants in full sun for part of the year.  If your area has sweltering summers, partial shade in the afternoon is a good thing.

Since the plant has shallow roots, it might need watering when the weather is dry.  If the soil is too wet, it could get root rot.  Bay laurel doesn’t need extra fertilizer when it’s in the ground.

In colder climates, bay laurel has to grow in pots as a shrub.  Move it outside in the spring and summer so it gets sunlight.  Please keep it in partial shade to protect it from constant full sunlight.

When the plant is indoors for the winter, keep it near a sunny window.  Protect the plant from drafts and heat sources (vents, appliances, etc.).

Pruning Bay Laurel

Always prune out any dead or dying leaves or branches.  Mature bay trees can tolerate a lot of pruning.  Since regrowth takes a long time, do tree pruning over 2 – 3 years.

To prune the plant as a shrub, cut the branches back to their lower leaves or buds as desired.  Also, trim away any suckers or low branches.  To encourage dense growth, do this during the summer.

You could also cut back this year’s fresh growth to encourage a bushier plant.

How to Harvest Bay Leaves

Harvest the leaves after two years.  There isn’t any set harvest time for bay leaves; pick them as needed.  Peak flavor will be in the largest leaves during midsummer.

Harvested bay laurel leaves, also known as bay leaves.
Harvested bay laurel leaves (bay leaves)

How to Harvest Bay Laurel Seeds

In the fall, collect the seed-bearing fruit.  The fruit is a drupe, meaning it has a thin skin with a fleshy interior containing a stony husk with a seed in it.  Other examples of drupes are peaches, plums, olives, and cherries.

Remove the fleshy outer cover and let the seeds dry for about a week.  Then follow the instructions above on how to cold stratify the seeds.

Storing Bay Leaves in the Fridge

  • Rinse the bay leaves in cold water and pat them dry.
  • Let the leaves dry completely since excess moisture could cause mold or mildew.
  • Seal the bay leaves in Ziploc bags after pushing all the air out.
  • The leaves will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

How to Freeze Bay Leaves

  • Rinse the leaves in cold water and pat them dry.
  • Let the leaves dry completely so there isn’t any water on them.  Excess moisture causes the leaves to stick together when they’re frozen.
  • Put the leaves in a freezer bag, press out all the air, and seal the bag.  Smaller amounts of leaves freeze better than larger amounts.
  • Add the frozen leaves to food as needed.  They don’t need defrosting.
  • Bay leaves can stay frozen for up to three months.

How to Dry Bay Leaves for Long-Term Storage

Fresh bay leaves are bitter, but drying them makes them more mellow.  Store dried bay leaves in airtight containers for up to two years.  After two years, the bay leaves are still safe to use, but they’ll have less flavor.

Rinse the leaves in cold water and pat them dry.  If the leaves still have surface moisture, it’s OK to start air drying.

The leaves must be dry of any surface moisture before drying with heat.  Moisture with heat could cause the leaves to cook in those spots.

Air Drying Bay Leaves

  • Cover a tray or baking sheet with paper towels.  You could also use a mesh screen without the paper towels.
  • Lay the leaves on the tray in a single layer.  Make sure they aren’t overlapping.
  • Dry the leaves in a warm, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight.
  • For the best flavor, dry the leaves for 48 -72 hours.  You can get crispy dry leaves by waiting two weeks.

How to Dry Bay Leaves in the Microwave

  • Cover a microwave-safe tray or plate with paper towels.
  • Lay the leaves on the towels in a single layer.  Make sure the leaves aren’t overlapping.
  • Microwave the leaves for 30 seconds, then flip them.
  • Microwave on that side for 30 seconds, then flip the leaves again.
  • Continue microwaving the leaves for 30 seconds and flipping them until they’re dry.  It should take a total of 2 – 3 minutes.

Drying Bay Leaves in the Oven

  • Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper and lay the leaves in a single layer.
  • Set the oven for the lowest possible temperature, which can vary depending on the oven model.
  • Place the baking sheet in the oven and turn the leaves every 20 minutes.
  • The leaves should be brown in 1 – 2 hours.

How to Dry Bay Leaves in a Dehydrator

  • Lay the leaves in a single layer on the dehydrator trays.  Make sure they don’t overlap.
  • Follow the dehydrator instructions for drying herbs.  Drying should take about four hours.
  • When the leaves are brown, they’re dry.  Pick out any leaves with green spots and dry them longer.

Bay Laurel Companion Plants

  • Rosemary, parsley, thyme, and sage grow well with bay laurel.
  • Beans also like to be around it.
  • Put bay leaves in containers of beans and grains to repel weevils and moths.
  • Make an organic insecticide by mixing powdered dry bay leaves, cayenne pepper, tansy, and peppermint.  Spread this mix around the garden.

For more companion planting options, see our comprehensive “Companion Planting Chart.

Pests for Bay Laurel

Many pests don’t like to be around bay laurel, but there are occasional problems.

Aphids

These pests seem to attack every plant.  Aphids are easy to remove with a strong blast of water.  A more permanent solution would be to spray them with neem oil or organic insecticidal soap.

Ladybugs, hoverflies, and lacewings are all excellent predators of aphids.

Scale

Scale are sucking insects that look as their name suggests.  They attack the leafy and woody parts of plants.  For easy elimination, spray them with neem oil or organic insecticidal soap.

Psyllids

They’re another sucking insect, but not easy to find.  You’ll usually find their dried-out exoskeletons or a mold on the leaves that looks like soot.

The mold grows on the honeydew these pests leave behind.  Then the mold moves to the leaves.  Spraying with neem oil or organic insecticidal soap will make them disappear.

More information about pest control is in our article “Top 5 Natural Pest Control Methods You Can Use Now.”

Diseases of Bay Laurel

Bay laurel rarely has trouble with diseases, but there is a bad fungal disease that can appear:

Phytophthera Root Rot

This fungal disease is a type of root or crown rot.  It weakens plants and later kills them.  During the early stage of the disease, the plants appear like they lack water.  This happens even if the plants have enough water.

Leaves can look dull or change color before fall comes.  Some plants can die during the first year of infection, but others could take years before they die.

In wet ground with poor drainage, it only takes four hours for phytophthera to attack the roots.  Sometimes the spread will slow by exposing the main roots.

Remove any bark that’s dark or oozing, and leave the main roots exposed until they dry out.

Mature trees rarely have a problem since they have extensive root systems.  That enables them to still get water and nutrition.  Small trees and garden crops can’t cope with the infection.

The best defense against this fungus and any soil-borne fungus is to mix the soil with neem cake before planting.  See our article “How to Save Your Plants With Neem Oil and Neem Cake” for more information.

Bay Leaves That Turn Brown or Yellow

Brown or yellow bay leaves usually have opposing causes. The brown leaves occur from lack of water, and leaves turn yellow when the plant has too much water.

Final Thoughts

Some people think adding bay leaves to foods is a waste.  But they add a welcome flavor that nothing else can replace.  Growing bay laurel is a win-win situation.

First, you’ll always have a good supply of leaves for cooking.  Besides that, the tree or bush makes a decorative addition to your home or landscape.

Frequently Asked Questions About Growing Bay Laurel

  1. What’s the difference between bay leaf and bay laurel?

    They’re two names for the same thing.  Most of the time, bay leaf refers to the leaves, and bay laurel refers to the plant.

  2. Can bay laurel be grown in a pot?

    In Zones 8 – 10, bay laurel can grow in pots or outside.  In lower zones, bay laurel can’t survive outside all year, so it has to grow in pots.  Bay laurel is easy to prune as a bush or even as topiary.

  3. How fast does bay laurel grow?

    Bay laurel can grow from a few inches to one foot per year.  It all depends on the growing conditions.

  4. How do you germinate bay laurel seeds?

    Germinating bay laurel seeds can be challenging since they can take from ten days to six months.  The best way to germinate the seeds is to copy how they grow in nature.

    That means the seeds need treatment with cold stratification.  See the full instructions in our article above.

  5. Can you overwinter bay laurel?

    Bay laurel can handle temperatures down to 20o F, which rules out a large part of the northern US.  If you plant bay laurel in the ground, it will die if you get cold winters.

    It grows outside all year in Zones 8 – 10.  In more northern zones, grow it in pots, move them outside in the summer, and overwinter them inside.

  6. Can you root bay laurel cuttings in water?

    Take cuttings in mid to late summer.  They should be about six inches long and taken from green wood.  Don’t take cuttings from new thin growth.

    Cut the branch halfway and then break it off the rest of the way.  When you break it, you should strip off about ½ inch of the parent stem with the cutting.

    This is a “heel cutting,“ which will help with root formation.

    You should take ten or more cuttings and hope to get some of them to root.  Bay laurel is a challenge to grow from seeds or cuttings.

    Pour a few inches of water into a glass and put in a cutting or two.  Clear glass makes it easy to see when the water gets cloudy.

    Change the water when this happens.  It could take a few months for roots to appear.

  7. Should I use dry or fresh bay leaves?

    This is a matter of which one you like better.  Fresh leaves have a stronger taste that tends to be more bitter.  Dried leaves are more mellow and preferred by more people.

    Give them both a try and see which one you like better.  When cooking, one fresh bay leaf is equal to two dried leaves.

  8. Do dried bay leaves go bad?

    Any dried herbs stored in air-tight containers can last for about three years.  They don’t go bad; they lose so much flavor that they don’t affect the taste of food.

Last update on 2024-07-18 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Bob Styer

As a child, I hated gardening. That was mainly because Dad expected us to work in the garden every so often even though we thought play was more important. Over the years, though, I've developed a real appreciation for growing things. Whether you're growing plants for food or to enjoy their beauty, gardening can make your life better. Seize the moment!

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