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The Bay Laurel Tree: Botanical Characteristics and Cultivation

Bay laurel, also called sweet bay or laurel, is a prevalent presence in our country. Explore the art of cultivating this tree using environmentally friendly methods to ensure its growth.

by BioGrow

The bay laurel, also know as sweet bay, true laurel, Grecian laurel or simply laurel, is widespread in our country. It’s a plant with ancient traditions, employed not only for its marvelous ornamental qualities but also for its therapeutic properties and culinary uses. From its leaves, it’s also possible to make bay laurel liqueur, a topic we’ve covered in the past. This plant is easily cultivated due to its hardy nature, adapting readily to various soil and climatic conditions.

In this article, we will delve into the notable botanical characteristics of the laurel tree. Furthermore, we will provide useful guidance on its proper cultivation in the garden. Lastly, we will discuss reproduction, pruning, and biological pest defense.

Botanical Overview and Origin of the Name

Laurel tree
The bay laurel tree (Laurus nobilis) is an evergreen tree belonging to the botanical family Lauraceae, genus laurus.
The name’s origin derives from the Latin laus meaning “praise”, perhaps due to the plant’s appreciated therapeutic qualities, and nobilis, for the ancient noble symbolism attributed to this tree.
In the Middle Ages, the laurel wreath began to be considered a tribute to offer, not so much to those who had performed heroic deeds, but to those who had distinguished themselves in poetry and literature.
This tradition continued into the Renaissance, and even today, great poets are called “laureates”. The term “laurea” (graduation) also originates from this use of the sweet bay. Those recognized as knowledgeable are symbolically rewarded with the noble laurel wreath.

Characteristics of the Bay Laurel Tree

The laurel is a shrub that, if allowed to grow freely, can reach heights of 10-15 meters. The trunk is erect with smooth, gray, or dark bark. While the canopy is elongated, pyramidal in shape, very dense with foliage. The branching is dense, with straight branches that push the bay laurel plant upward. The wood of this shrub is aromatic, emitting the classic scent of the leaves.
Sweet bay has an extensive root system, with roots that penetrate deep into the soil. Unlike other tree species in our countryside, such as the almond tree, blackthorn, or jujube tree, laurel is not a very long-lived tree. The leaves are oval, very thick, dark green, with a shiny upper surface. The margins are serrated. They have a decent size, measuring about 6-9 cm long and 4-6 cm wide. In the kitchen, as is known, true laurel leaves are the most used part due to their intense aroma. It is a dioecious species, meaning male and female flowers are found on separate plants.
Therefore, the flowers of the bay laurel tree are unisexual, light yellow in color, and very small. They are arranged in axillary umbels and appear at the beginning of spring.
The fruits, on the other hand, appear as elliptical-ovoid drupes (berries), about 10-15 mm long. At full maturity, in the autumn period, they have a shiny black color. Inside, they contain a single seed.

Varieties and Species

There are two varieties of the bay laurel tree that show slight differences. Both are highly appreciated for various reasons.
The first species is Laurus nobilis var. Aurea. This variety has golden-colored, more pointed leaves. It is a more delicate species, and in garden cultivation, it needs more protection from wind and frost. Full sun can also cause annoying burns on the leaves, so protection from excessive heat is advisable. The other widely spread variety is Laurus nobilis Angustifolia. It has narrower leaves compared to regular bay laurel and is sometimes called willow-leaf bay laurel due to this characteristic. This variety is highly resistant to climatic fluctuations.

Similar Species

A species with very similar characteristics to the bay laurel tree is the cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). This species is a shrub belonging to the botanical family Rosaceae. As the name suggests, there’s an association with the bay laurel tree, particularly due to the similarity of the leaves. True laurel leaves are distinguished by their serrated edges. The fruits of the cherry laurel are poisonous berries for humans. They contain hydrocyanic acid, which in large doses can even be lethal.

Cultivation of the Bay Laurel Tree

Laurel plant in the gardenThe sweet bay is hardy and resistant. It adapts well to different climates but prefers coastal and hilly areas, up to 800 meters above sea level. It also tolerates temperatures below freezing. Prolonged frost can, of course, pose a threat. However, the plant can be protected using plastic sheeting, similar to what is done for orchards, especially in the early years of the plant’s life or if it’s cultivated in a pot. Note that this precaution should be considered only under extreme weather conditions.
The bay laurel tree adapts to all types of soil; the important thing is to ensure proper drainage. Waterlogging can cause problems. Due to its characteristics, the sweet bay plant can also be grown in a pot for ornamental purposes. In this case, regular irrigation is also necessary. In the case of cultivation in the ground, bay laurel does not require additional irrigation except during the first year of growth. For garden placement, it prefers partial shade, preferably in a wind-protected area.

Reproduction of the sweet bay Plant

Laurel plants in pots
The bay laurel plant can be reproduced from seed through a precise process. The ideal period for sowing is autumn when the berry containing the seed is at its peak maturity.
Before planting it in the soil, the seed needs to undergo scarification, which involves weakening the outer protective layer. This can be achieved by placing the seed in boiling water and allowing it to soak until the water temperature returns to normal.
Scarified seeds don’t have a long shelf life, so they should be planted immediately in the soil. The propagation medium should be soft and lightweight, which can be achieved by mixing peat and sand in equal parts. Once the new seedlings are sufficiently developed, they can be transplanted into larger pots or directly into the ground in their final location.
Other methods for propagating the plant include collecting and potting root suckers that form at the base of mother plants, as well as using cuttings. Of course, fully grown sweet bay plants can also be purchased from nurseries at competitive prices. In this case, transplantation can be done either in autumn or at the end of winter.

Pruning the Bay Laurel Tree

In its natural habitat, the bay laurel tree doesn’t require pruning. It grows spontaneously and vigorously, spreading as long as it has space. However, it’s often cultivated for ornamental purposes, in topiary art, or for creating hedges, which requires pruning. Pruning operations are aimed at shaping the plant for aesthetic purposes and do not have a real improvement utility.
Pruning can be done either in autumn or at the end of winter, before the vegetative growth of the spring season resumes. Just like with any pruning intervention, the right pruning tools are necessary in this case as well.

Harvesting and Storage

The leaves of the bay laurel tree can be harvested throughout the year. To preserve them properly, they should be dried in a cool and ventilated place. The drupes, produced only by female plants, are harvested in late autumn. For proper storage, they can be dried in the sun or in a warm oven. To use them effectively, we recommend reading our article on the therapeutic properties of sweet bay.

Organic Pest Defense for the Bay Laurel Tree

Regarding pests, the bay laurel tree is very resistant to attacks, making them quite rare. One of the pests it fears most is the scale insect, particularly the “pepper corn scale” and the “cottony cushion scale”. These insects can infest the leaves, compromising their use and, in general, leading to decline. To rid the plant of scale insects and their sooty mold, you can use the organic remedy of pure Marseille soap. Another useful product for this purpose is soft potassium soap (specific for plants and agriculture in general), which can be found here.
After treating with soap, another natural product that can be used is ferns macerate, which serves as a repellent to prevent the reappearance of the pest. Among the fungal diseases, the riskiest for the laurel tree is powdery mildew.
In the home garden, to protect plants from this disease, it’s advisable to intervene with a product that everyone has at home, namely baking soda.

Further Reading

  • International-agrophysics.org, 2010: “Physical properties of bay laurel seeds” – This article discusses the various ways sweet bay plants are used, including for cosmetic, food, chemical, and medicinal purposes, emphasizing its moisture-dependent physical properties.
  • Journal of Essential Oil Bearing Plants, 2013: “Antimicrobial, antioxidant activity of the essential oil of Bay Laurel from Hatay, Turkey” – The study provides insights into the antimicrobial and antioxidant activities of the essential oil of true laurel.
  • Molecules, 2021: “Suggestions on the Contribution of Methyl Eugenol and Eugenol to (Laurus nobilis L.) Essential Oil Preservative Activity through Radical Scavenging” – This research focuses on the preservative activity of sweet bay‘s essential oil, particularly its radical scavenging properties.
  • Foods, Oils in Food Preservation, Flavor and Safety, 2016: “Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) oils” – The article discusses the potential food applications of laurel’s essential oil and its wide application in the industry.

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