You know, a recipe typically calls for 1 to 2 bay leaves. Then you do another dish, and another. Those leaves start to add up. They aren’t cheap. Growing your own is.
There are actually a variety of plants known as “bay” or “laurel” (A laurel, and hardy handshake! “Blazing Saddles” fans, where are you?). Not all are suitable for cooking, either because of flavor or a nasty side dose of poison. However, the most ubiquitous type sold in markets here and used in Mediterranean cooking is Sweet Bay, also known as Grecian Laurel.
*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*
In its native habitat, Grecian Laurel grows into really large shrubs up to 30+ feet tall. However, it takes a while. Keeping it potted will also help to thwart that growth. I have had my plant for a few years now, and it has reached a grand height of two feet. Still big enough to keep me supplied with fresh leaves for the stew and extras to give to friends. In fact, each time I trim a branch several new baby leaves pop up around that cut part of the stem. Trimming helps to shape the plant, but also triggers lateral growth of new stems and leaves resulting in bushier growth, rather than upright.
Sometimes Grecian Laurel is trimmed into a more tree-like shape, but this could be problematic depending on your climate and sun exposure. Greek Bay is not cold hardy and an unprotected tree trunk is far more susceptible to frost damage. It also could lead to sun scalding, as well, in hotter climates. It’s preferred zones are USDA 8-10, but you can grow it in slightly colder zones by protecting it from frost, or by keeping it potted and bringing it indoors in very cold zones.
Being a Mediterranean native, Grecian Laurel is a low water user, but does not like extended periods of dry conditions. If the plant is in a pot, keep in mind that the soil does dry out more quickly so it will need more regular water. The plant also doesn’t mind some shade in the morning or afternoon, especially in hotter zones, but will not grow well in heavy shade.
If allowed to freely grow, Grecian Laurel will produce flowers that attract pollinators. If pollinated, there will then be small berries produced in the fall that attract birds. I keep my plant small so I have not had any, but do note that the berries will drop. If you allow yours to grow larger you may want to keep it someplace where the fallen fruits won’t become a nuisance.
Plant problems are relatively few. Scale bugs and psyllids can be a problem, as can root rot due to poor drainage and/or heavy watering. Scale bugs can be removed by hand, and damage from psyllids can be managed by ensuring proper watering and avoiding fertilizing during warmer months to reduce overproduction of new, tender leaves when the bugs are most active.
The aromatic leaves are usually plucked when they are mature. They will be larger, dark green, and dull. Gently pluck them from the plant, or you can trim whole stems to shape the plant. The leaves are generally not eaten because they are so tough, unless they have been finely ground or chopped up. They are a great flavor addition to soups and stews, usually only 1-2 are needed at a time.
- Perennial: Plants will live for several years
- Height: 30-40 feet (can be controlled by keeping potted or by heavy pruning)
- Width: 20-30 feet (can be controlled by keeping potted or by heavy pruning)
- Sun: full sun, will want some morning or afternoon shade in hot areas
- Water: moderate, do not let soil stay dry for long
- Soil pH: neutral to slightly acidic
- Soil type: tolerates various soils, but needs decent drainage
- Key nutrients: balanced, but likely does not need fertilizer unless soils are severely depleted.
- Planting time: transplant in fall in hotter zones, or early spring in cooler winter areas.