As botanical names are always accurate, let’s start with what we are talking about in this article – Laurus nobilis – sometimes called bay or sweet bay – not to be confused with magnolias. This is the culinary herb obtained from a large shrub/medium-sized tree where the aromatic leaves are used for cooking. In addition to its use as a herb, bay is also a great landscape addition and can serve a dual-purpose ornamental.
Bay has a long history in Mediterranean culture where it is used to flavor food and culturally as a symbol of victory. Worldwide, bay is a favored herb and was in fact highlighted as the herb of the year 2009 by the International Herb Association. While a single tree would provide you with all of the leaves you would ever need, bay also is an ornamental evergreen that would make a nice addition to your landscape. Somewhat slow-growing, the bay tree will eventually grow to about twelve feet tall as a single-trunked small tree, or multi-trunked shrub – easily selectively pruned to shape. The dark green, leathery leaves are about three inches long with a serrated leaf margin. The bay tree is dioecious and comes as either a male or a female. As we are not growing it for fruit, this is not that important, other than some people are allergic to bay pollen, so ask for a female tree if possible.
Perfectly hardy in our area, bay trees can be planted in well-drained full-sun to part-shade locations. In fact, bay are very adaptable to part-shade locations. An aromatic hedge of bay can be quite the conversation starter – both edible and utilitarian. Bay trees make ideal specimens, and small specimens do well when kept in a large container on patios or decks.
Where can you purchase a bay plant locally? You might find one for sale from a plant vendor at a farmer’s markets. Also, check on-line where you may discover several different cultivars for sale – a type with golden leaves as an example. If you have access to a bay tree, and permission from the owner, you may be able to start some plants of your own. However, home propagation from both cuttings and seeds can be difficult and slow, so you may just want to purchase already-rooted started cuttings instead. If you attempt propagation, use only fresh seeds and semi-hardwood cutting material. Air-layering may also be attempted as a propagation technique.
You can harvest the fresh leaves as needed, but target the larger, older leaves as they have the best flavor. The leaves can of course also be dried and stored. Remember, while this may go without saying, don’t eat the leaves, they are only used to cook with and flavor dishes.
There are a few nice specimens of bay in our area – one I found at the Nature Park in Punta Gorda. Bay cannot be beat as an ornamental and culinary herb. This multipurpose plant will fit nicely into any landscape! For more information on all types of herbs suitable for our area, or to ask a question, please visit https://www.facebook.com/CharlotteMGLifeline/ . Ralph E. Mitchell is the Director/Horticulture Agent for the UF/IFAS Charlotte County Extension Service. He can be reached at 941-764-4344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mahr, S. (2021) Sweet Bay, Laurus nobilis. University of Wisconsin – Madison, Extension.
Herb Gardening – Bay Laurel (2021) University of Illinois Extension | University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign | College of ACES
Gilman, E. F. (2020) Laurus nobilis, Sweet Bay. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions – Bay Laurel (2021) The University of Florida Extension Service,