How to Grow and Care for Bay Laurel Trees

Laurus Nobilis

Bay laurel is an aromatic evergreen tree in the flowering Lauraceae family. It features shiny, dark green oval-shaped leaves with a leathery texture that are popularly used as a kitchen seasoning.

A bay laurel shrub growing next to a stone wall.
Photo by Lorna Kring.

Native to the Mediterranean region, it’s considered to be one of the oldest of cultivated trees. Other common names include sweet, true, and Grecian laurel.

A tall narrow stem of bay leaves growing on a shrub.
L. nobilis grows several inches each year. Photo by Lorna Kring.

Planted in the garden, it can reach a mature height of 25-55 feet, although most are kept at 2-8 feet with persistent trimming.

Small clumps of yellow flowers form in spring, followed by small purple drupes that contain a single seed.

Closeup of yellow-green and dark green bay leaves growing on a woody shrub.

Highly prized as an ornamental, L. nobilis is often trimmed into topiary shapes, and the trunks can be trained into braids and spirals. They also do very well in containers, making a handsome specimen for the patio, or simply to keep nearby as a kitchen herb.

And their beautiful glossy leaves make a handsome, long-lasting addition to bouquets of cut flowers and seasonal arrangements like Christmas wreaths and swags.

Here’s what we’re looking at in this article:

The Crown of Victory

Steeped in history and myth, wreaths of L. nobilis have been used to symbolize victory, personal achievement, and social status since antiquity.

As far back as 776 BC, ancient Greeks used the leaves to crown the victors of athletic competitions, the precursors of the modern Olympic games.

A green bay laurel tree with more growing in the distance, against a white sky.

This idea carried into the Roman era, when emperors wore a wreath like a crown to denote their divine lineage.

And during the Renaissance, after doctors completed their final examinations, they were adorned with berries and branches of bay – from which we get the word “baccalaureate.”

Care and Cultivation

Sweet bay is hardy to Zone 8, enjoys a full-sun location, and should be planted in spring while still semi-dormant.

Use a soil richly amended with organic compost or well-rotted manure, adding extra grit to improve drainage and plant stability. Use a ratio of one part sand or extra-fine crushed gravel to six parts enriched soil.

For container growth, ensure plenty of drainage material is laid down before planting. Water moderately and avoid soggy roots, which can cause permanent damage.

Repot every 2-3 years, gently trimming away approximately one-third of the roots and removing the top two inches of soil. Replant in a fresh mix of amended soil and replace the top layer with mature compost.

Healthy green growth on a bay laurel shrub.
Photo by Lorna Kring.

If your region has regular freeze cycles, protect the roots by wrapping the container with bubble wrap until spring.

Fertilize containers every two weeks from spring until August using an all-purpose fertilizer, or monthly for in-ground plants.

For large specimens, provide protection from high winds, which can cause weak limbs to break.

And in areas with harsh winters, plant in containers and bring indoors to a bright, cool room or tuck into a sheltered spot, covering with burlap to protect from prolonged freezing temperatures.

Pruning and Training

Pruning requirements depend on whether your bay has been trained as a topiary, grown as a shrub, or allowed to mature into a full-sized tree.

For all sizes, prune out any dead and damaged leaves or branches in the spring. Mature, full-grown trees can be pruned hard, but re-growth is slow – carry out hard pruning over two or three years to maintain some greenery while the new growth forms.

A recently pruned bay laurel bush, with green leaves and clipped stems, in bright sunshine.
Shape by trimming above leaf nodes. Photo by Lorna Kring.

For those you’d like to maintain as more manageable shrubs, cut back to lower leaves or buds as desired, and trim away any low-trunk branches and suckers.

Topiary-trained specimens are trimmed in the summer to promote dense growth. Prune the current year’s growth back to leaf nodes that face in the direction of desired growth, maintaining balance and a harmonious shape.

Green bay laurel shrub growing between pink, red, and purple flowers, and other types of plants.
Trim in summer for dense growth. Photo by Lorna Kring.

With regular clipping and training when the tree is young, the dark green foliage and stems can be sculpted into a variety of formal shapes to make an excellent patio or garden accent.

Propagation

Bay can be propagated in a few ways:

In fall, collect the seed-bearing drupes and remove the fleshy outer cases. Sow into small containers of light, loamy soil and place in a sheltered location or a cold frame until the second spring, when they can be planted out.

Read more about growing bay trees from seed here.

Closeup of the branches and leaves of a bay laurel tree.

Softwood cuttings can be taken in late spring or early summer, as can semi-ripe cuttings in late summer. Sow and shelter as for seeds, planting out in their second year.

Bay laurels can also be easily transplanted should you wish to start your plants in a container or move them.

Plant Facts

  • Protects nearby plants from moths and unfriendly insects.
  • Dried leaves can be placed in canisters of rice or other grains to repel bugs.
  • Leaves can be used to produce a light green dye.
  • Wood can be added to grills and smokers for a sweet, smoky flavor.

In the Kitchen

An essential ingredient in a traditional bouquet garni herb mixture, bay leaves are a well-known kitchen ingredient. Leaves can be used dried, fresh, or frozen to season fish, meat, poultry, sauces, soups, stews, grains, and roasted vegetables.

Green bay leaves arranged in rows on paper towels.
A kitchen must have. Photo by Lorna Kring.

Dried, they’re best suited for use in slow-cooked dishes. Fresh or frozen, they can be used to add subtle flavor to cretons, fish, pates, poaching liquids, risottos, and sausages.

Leaves can be harvested at any time throughout the year, but the flavor will be best in summer – and large, mature leaves have more flavor and fragrance than tender new growth.

Where to Buy

For the home garden, there are only a few true bay cultivars to choose from:

L. nobilis is the most popular, commonly cultivated for culinary and ornamental purposes.

L. nobilis ‘Aurea’ has a golden-yellow foliage. And L. nobilis f. angustifolia is known as willow-leaved laurel for its thin leaves.

Image shot from an oblique angle of two bay laurel seedlings growing in potting soil in small orange plastic containers, isolated on a white background.

L. Nobilis 2-Pack

You can pick up L. nobilis at your favorite garden center, or purchase a two-pack of four-inch pots online, available from 9GreenBox via Walmart.

Single-stem saplings are also available from Nature Hills Nursery.

Pests and Problems

Hardy and easy to care for, bay laurel is largely disease and pest-free, with only a few easily remedied problems.

Leaf spot is most often caused by overwatering and allowing the roots to sit in water.

Ensure containers have a thick layer of drainage material at the bottom of the pot, and enough drainage holes for excess water to easily flow through.

Closeup of a diseased bay leaf in the garden, shriveled and yellow with a white growth.

In the ground, improve drainage by amending the soil with sand or extra-fine crushed rock.

If spots persist despite good drainage, chances are the soil has become depleted of nutrients. Repot in the spring using plenty of rich, organic compost.

Yellow leaves occur in small numbers each year as new growth occurs, and are shed naturally.

Yellowing can also occur in containers,and the problem is usually caused by a nutrient deficiency, root damage caused by soggy soil, or cold weather damage.

Apply a general-purpose fertilizer to containers every two weeks until August to improve nutrient content of the soil, always ensure they have adequate drainage, and prune damaged wood in spring.

Attractive and Practical

Attractive in garden beds or containers, bay laurel is a wonderfully versatile tree that adds visual interest to the landscape all year long – and it will make a delicious addition to your cooking!

Train plants while they’re young for topiary specimens, or simply prune to maintain a manageable shape. For cooking, harvest leaves at any time, but keep in mind that they’re most flavorful in summer.

A flower arrangement with fresh bay leaves and rosemary, pink, purple, and white flowers.
Use sprigs in floral arrangements. Photo by Lorna Kring.

And remember, for years of healthy growth, good drainage is a must, and container specimens need to be repotted every 2-3 years. Aside from that, they’re pretty much self-reliant!

If you have any questions about L. nobilis, drop us a line in the comments below. And if you’d like more ideas about cooking with bay, check out this article on our sister site, Foodal – it has all the info you need.


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A collage of photos showing different views of bay laurel growing in a garden setting.

Photos by Lorna Kring © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photo via 9GreenBox. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

About Lorna Kring

A writer, artist, and entrepreneur, Lorna is also a long-time gardener who got hooked on organic and natural gardening methods at an early age. These days, her vegetable garden is smaller to make room for decorative landscapes filled with color, fragrance, art, and hidden treasures. Cultivating and designing the ideal garden spot is one of her favorite activities – especially for gathering with family and friends for good times and good food (straight from the garden, of course)!

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davie
davie (@guest_3306)
1 year ago

are the flowers of the sweet bay tree edible ?

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
Admin
Noble Member
Reply to  davie
1 year ago

This isn’t something that we’ve tried, but John Cox at Edible Monterey Bay says he likes to pickle California bay blossoms (Umbellularia californica) with champagne vinegar and sea salt, and claims they have “a flavor and texture reminiscent of capers.” Sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) is a different species, so we aren’t able to provide a definitive answer as of yet – we’re going to dig a little deeper, and we’ll get back to you with a more clear answer as soon as possible!

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
Admin
Noble Member
Reply to  Allison Sidhu
1 year ago

We were able to track down some information claiming the flowers are used to flavor wine in China, via Jack Stephens, reference librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library. But this may actually pertain more to sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans, or guì flower) rather than sweet bay. It seems they are not poisonous, but use of the flowers on their own/as is without some kind of pickling/preservation in vinegar or alcohol remains largely a mystery. We’ll let you know if we’re able to find out anything else!

Paul
Paul (@guest_3684)
1 year ago

Question:
I have a 6 week old seedling that I germinated, it has a 2 inch stem with 8 leaves towards the top each no longer than 1cm. Is slow growth like this normal as I’ve never grown one before?

Meg Ticknor
Meg Ticknor (@guest_4067)
1 year ago

I have a small plant I just bought intending to summer it outside in a pot, then back inside in fall (zone 5). My question is when should I start taking leaves off, is it smart to take the older ones on top off to encourage new growth? Thank you!

Carol
Carol (@guest_5166)
1 year ago

Someone gave me a three foot bay laurel. I watered it every three or so days and it was outside in the sun in a well-drained pot. The leaves began to fall a few at a time over a couple of weeks, then all of them fell off. Is it dead? Will it come back if I bring it inside?

Emiley
Emiley (@guest_5420)
1 year ago

I just acquired two bay laurel trees about 60” tall with the objective to sculpt them into single trunk topiaries. What percentage can I trim away without shocking it? They both have 2-3 large suckers. One sucker is as tall as the main trunk. Thank you for your help!

Kathy
Kathy (@guest_5615)
10 months ago

Hello, I am in zone 6 and would like to try growing bay leaf in order to cut enough stems to make a wreath in the fall. I have sourced some that sell plugs that I can pot up this spring. My two questions are, how much growth can I expect in the first season? And, two, since I must overwinter, I will have to plant in a container. What size container should I be using that would be sufficient for say a 3 or 4 foot shrub size that I can cut from and overwinter for several years?

Josephine
Josephine (@guest_5969)
8 months ago

My bay laurel plant has many new leaves growing. The leaves are soft, not leathery like the ones that were on the plant when I first bought it. Is there something I should be doing? Also, my plant has fungus gnats on it. How can I get rid of these?
Thanks,
Josephine

Josephine
Josephine (@guest_5990)
Reply to  Lorna Kring
8 months ago

Hi Lorna,
Thank you so much for your very helpful suggestions – I appreciate it so much. Should I pick the tender leaves and can I use them in cooking soups, sauces, etc.? Just to make sure I understand, I will need to wait for another set of leaves before they are the leathery ones? For controlling the gnats can I try the sand and watering from the bottom first, or should I try one of the two other methods first? Also, do I purchase the sand and other products from garden Centers?
Thank you Lorna,
Josephine

Josephine
Josephine (@guest_6008)
Reply to  Lorna Kring
8 months ago

Thank you so much Lorna – very helpful.
Josephine

Sharon
Sharon (@guest_6375)
7 months ago

My leaves on my tree are turning brown, falling off. Yet I have new leaves growing. My tree is about 5 or 6 years old. What am I doing wrong?

Anna
Anna (@guest_6412)
7 months ago

Hi, got the bay plant last year, how can you tell if the plant is dead? No leaves? No new growth?

Jennifer Lee
Jennifer Lee (@guest_7087)
6 months ago

I just acquired a very healthy laurus nobilis. It’s in a 1-gallon container placed in full sun. It has 4 main spikes which are 15 to 20 inches long, and new leaves on the nodes. I plan to keep it in my patio in a container. I would like to maintain it in a bush form eventually to 3 to 4 feet. When and how do I start pruning to maintain its shape and size?

Kim Ragsdale
Kim Ragsdale (@guest_7216)
6 months ago

Hi, I have a Bay tree planted in the garden which has grown into a single trunk tree and the leaves are hard to get at. Would it survive and sprout branches if I cut the trunk off?

Maria
Maria (@guest_7305)
6 months ago

I got a 3-foot-tall bay laurel from my friend 3 years ago. First year was inside the house during the winter time, and I found some sticky substance near the pot. This year I found the same. I moved it outside to the balcony last weekend, again a few leaves have this sticky substance, like it is sweating. I included the picture – plant looks healthy – but I am concerned with those leaves. Thanks very much for your advice!

Laurel-leaves.JPG
Maria
Maria (@guest_7364)
Reply to  Lorna Kring
6 months ago

Thanks very much !! – I will try your suggestion

Maria
Maria (@guest_9278)
Reply to  Lorna Kring
3 months ago

I read all your answers – all great and now I am asking another question: about those shoots that come up near the base of the bush/tree, can I remove/extract them and create new plants? And since I have branches like 6 feet tall, I need some recommendations to cut some and not kill the whole tall bush. Thanks again.

John Honeycomb
John Honeycomb (@guest_7750)
5 months ago

I just received these three rooted cuttings that are about 6-8 inches tall in two inch pots. I’m in zone 10.

At what point should I repot these? Where would they best be located as they begin their journey? We were planning on starting them in an east facing garden window. Do you think they would prefer different conditions?

Thanks so much!

15907203204084732894390598244216.jpg
John Honeycomb
John Honeycomb (@guest_7766)
Reply to  John Honeycomb
5 months ago

Also, it looks like there are some roots coming out the bottom of the planters.

Darlene
Darlene (@guest_7819)
5 months ago

Hi, I just purchased a Laurel Bay Leaf Tree seedling. I live in the Central Valley of California. Our winters usually maintain at about 50°F but get to the low 30°F overnight in the winter and spring months. The summer and Fall months range from 80°F to 112°F.

is it best to plant in a pot and move around from the cold months indoors to the summer months outside?

Rosy
Rosy (@guest_9244)
3 months ago

Just moved into a house with 2 bay trees in the garden + loads of suckers. How far down do you have to cut them and what is the trick to stopping them from appearing?

Rosy
Rosy (@guest_9245)
3 months ago

Not suckers like pests – like shoots that come up near the base of the tree.

Gary MIDDLETON
Gary MIDDLETON (@guest_9437)
3 months ago

Hi, here is our massive Bay tree. It’s about 12 meters I think. Look at the huge trunks! We are in Brittany, NW France. Our house is at least 450 years old and incredible history (being a prison, farm, town hall, school, Nazi HQ, police station etc etc) as it’s the original one in this ancient Breton village so I was curious as to how old this tree could be? Any ideas? Regards, Gary at maisondesmaquisards dot com

9DA7F809-7149-4B05-9FC8-AAFFB98630E0.jpeg
JIM SCHMER
JIM SCHMER (@guest_9833)
2 months ago

Greetings, I have a nice Bay Laurel bush I bring out into my garden every year from the house (over winter zone 5b) which is about 5 years old and stands approx 4 feet tall. My question deals with harvesting the leaves to dry and use for cooking & sharing with friends/family as a dried herb. Do I simply pick off the mature leaves and allow the 2-ft long “stalk” to remain bare, or do I prune it off entirely and harvest the leaves? If I simply pick off the leaves, will new growth appear along the stalk? Or is… Read more »

sohier mansour
sohier mansour (@guest_10110)
1 month ago

What about salinity tolerance??

Edith
Edith (@guest_10222)
1 month ago

Is this tree a host for swallowtail butterflies?

Maria
Maria (@guest_10327)
Reply to  Lorna Kring
1 month ago

I have another question if you are so kind; I had a cactus for 16 years and a few weeks back gave me flowers and I thing from some I got some “seeds” I send you the pictures . If they are seed what I need to do next – plant them? Thanks in advance –

Cactus Seeds-e.jpg
Cactus-Seeds-e.jpg
Cactus-flowers-e.jpg
Cactus-Before-e.jpg