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Bay tree (Laurus nobilis)

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last updated Sep 28, 2012
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Bay

The bay tree is a popular evergreen shrub suitable for containers or growing in the ground. Kept neatly clipped, the dark-green foliage can create stunning formal shapes that make an entrance or look perfect on a patio. Bay leaves can be used fresh or dried and are used in cooking to give a fragrant flavour to soups, stews and other dishes.

Cultivation notes Back to top

Bay can be grown in a number of ways. It thrives in containers, especially if watered regularly and positioned in a sheltered spot. In the garden, bay trees grow as a large bushy shrub or small tree, reaching a height of 7.5m (23ft) or more. Bay can also be turned into topiary (trees or shrubs cut or trained into specified shapes) specimens which can be shaped into pyramid, ball or "lollipop" standards, and some have ornately plaited or spirally trained stems.

  • Bay needs a well-drained soil and a sheltered sunny or part-shady position

Container cultivation

  • Use a soil-based compost, such as John Innes No 2 or a soilless compost, with extra grit added to improve stability and drainage
  • Water container-grown bay moderately. Over-watering can cause root damage
  • Add controlled-release fertiliser granules to the compost or a liquid feed every two weeks from mid-spring to late summer
  • Repot bay every two years in spring
  • Compost breaks down over time so, even if you don't repot regularly, it is good to lift the plant out of its pot and tease off a third of the roots before adding fresh compost and checking drainage. Remove and replace the top 5cm (2in) of compost from the top of the container
  • Bay can withstand temperatures down to -5°C (23°F), but frost and cold winter winds can damage the foliage. Protect plants with fleece or take them indoors to a garage or even a cool room if temperatures fall below -5°C
  • The roots of container-grown plants are susceptible to freezing through the pot in a cold winter. Prevent this happening by using bubble wrap around the pot
  • Ensure the base of the container is raised off the ground by using pot feet (or bricks) to allow excess water to drain away and help prevent frost cracking the pot
  • Plants grown in the ground may suffer cold or wind damage to the current season's growth, which can be pruned out in the spring
  • Small greenish-yellow male or female flowers are produced in spring, followed by black berries on female plants

Pruning and training Back to top

Pruning and training depends on whether you have trained the bay as a topiary or are simply growing it as a shrub in the ground.

  • Topiary-trained bay are trimmed with secateurs during summer to encourage a dense habit and to maintain a balanced shape. Prune new shoots to a bud facing in the direction of the desired growth
  • Shrubs can be trimmed into shape by simply cutting back to a lower leaf or bud in spring or summer. See shrubs and trees: light pruning for more advice
  • Remove any leaf tips damaged by winter weather by lightly pruning in late spring
  • Mature bay trees can tolerate hard pruning, but are slow to recover and re-grow. This would be best carried out over two or three seasons in late spring

Propagation Back to top

There are a few ways to increase bays;

  • Bay can be propagated from seed collected in the autumn. Remove the fleshy outer casing and sow as soon as possible. If seed has dried or is bought, soak in warm water for 24 hours before sowing. Plants may be male or female so seed is only likely to form on female specimens 
  • Take semi-ripe cuttings in late summer
  • Layering is often successful, but slower than cuttings

Cultivar Selection Back to top

There are only a few bays to chose from. In the main;

  • Laurus nobilis 'Aurea' AGM (yellow-leaved bay tree) has golden-yellow foliage
  • Laurus nobilis AGM (bay tree) is most commonly cultivated and used for culinary purposes
  • Laurus nobilis f. angustiolia (willow-leaved laurel) has thinner leaves than bay, but they are still edible

Links

RHS Plant finder
RHS Plant selector
AGM plants

Problems Back to top

Leaf spots - often caused by waterlogged roots, or wet weather conditions. Plants in containers are also very prone to this, usually indicating that the compost has become old and tired. Repot your plant in spring into fresh, well-drained compost.

Yellow leaves - older leaves will shed naturally in low numbers. Nutrient deficiency can be the problem in container-grown plants but is more commonly caused by waterlogged compost or cold weather damage.

Peeling bark - following the recent harsh winters many bay trees developed cracking and peeling bark, especially on the lower main stems. The cause is uncertain, but the winter cold, and possibly other stress factors such as fluctuating soil moisture levels are likely to be involved. Though the damage looks alarming it does not appear to be invariably fatal. If the rest of the plant is growing normally or recovering from winter damage (recovery should be apparent by midsummer if it is to happen) no action is needed.

However, if the growth above the damaged area is dead, remove the dead parts cutting to healthy wood (i.e. green under the bark) or to near soil level. Recovery from lower down or soil level often occurs.

Other problems - brown leaves and insect infestations from bay sucker, soft and horse chestnut scale.

Bay is relatively resistant to rabbits, being nibbled less than many plants.

Quick facts

Common name Bay tree, sweet bay, bay laurel
Botanical name Laurus nobilis
Group Evergreen shrub
Flowering time Spring
Planting time April to September
Height and Spread Up to 7.5m (23ft) unless clipped
Aspect Full sun or partial shade
Hardiness Generally hardy to -5°C (23°F) but can withstand lower temperatures in sheltered postitions. Bay is hardier when planted in the ground
Difficulty Easy

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