Although bay trees can grow as high as 7.5 metres or more, they are often pruned or kept in containers or pots to limit their height and spread.
Bay trees are slow-growing and have become a popular ornamental tree, often used for formal displays. Their gorgeously dark green foliage can be easily pruned, clipped and trained into neat topiary shapes.
Being evergreen, bay trees provide year-round interest, texture and structure to the garden. They also produce small, star-shaped, yellow-green flowers which bloom in spring which develop into dark purple berries in autumn.
What are bay trees?
Easily recognisable by their fragrant, smooth, glabrous leaves, bay trees are evergreen trees or shrubs which are part of the flowering plant family of Lauraceae.
Bay trees are native to the Mediterranean regions and can be used either fresh or dried in cooking. It also has medicinal properties, and the fruit can even be used to make soap.
The bay tree is often mentioned in ancient Greek mythology, where this handsome tree symbolised courage and strength. In Roman myths, it was beloved by the Gods who wore sprigs as crowns as a symbol of high status and glory.
Why we love bay trees
The bay trees glossy leaves have been treasured for centuries and are now a firm favourite among gardeners. But, if you aren’t yet sold on this popular plant then allow us to break down exactly why we love them!
Bay leaves have a spicy, peppery, aromatic flavour and are commonly used in curries, soups and stews. It is also an essential ingredient in the herb mix “Bouquet Garni”. As previously mentioned, the leaves can be used fresh, or you can harvest them and summer and dry them.
Dried bay leaves have a much more robust flavour but should be stored for no more than a year. Dried bay leaves can also be brewed to make a healthy and delicious herbal tea.
The wood of bay trees can also be used to smoke meat, giving it a distinct and delectable flavour.
Bay leaves have many traditional, medicinal uses and can be used for treating skin rashes, earaches and even rheumatism. They are also a rich source of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, potassium, calcium and magnesium and have been proven useful in the treatment of migraines. Bay leaves also contain enzymes which help break down proteins, allowing you to digest food faster and help to soothe indigestion.
Protection from pests
The plant itself is highly resistant to pests so can be used to protect other plants from infestation and prevent health problems. The highly fragrant scent makes an effective insect repellent.
Dried bay leaves can also be used to help to protect stored grains and beans and other foods from weevils.
Because of the ease in which it can be clipped and trained, bay trees can be grown as a screen or a hedge to provide privacy and a shield from the elements. It is slow-growing, however, so patience is a virtue with this practical plant.
Bay tree wood is sweetly scented and does not wear easily and is frequently used in the manufacturing of walking sticks, ornaments and in marquetry work, where it is carefully cut and crafted to make intricate designs.
Types of bay tree
There are only a few types of bay tree to choose from, which means narrowing down the right one for your garden is a piece of cake. Here’s the low down on the bay trees up for grabs.
This large, erect evergreen shrub is the bay tree most commonly cultivated, and its leathery leaves are used in cooking for its aromatic flavouring.
The Laurus nobilis, or yellow-leaved bay tree, can grow up to 12 metres in height and over 8 metres in spread, but is slow-growing and can take up to 50 years to reach its full stature.
It is traditionally clipped and trained into beautiful, ornamental topiary, providing sophisticated structure to formal gardens. It can also be used to create a hedge or screen, providing privacy to your garden.
Because it is easily grown in pots and containers, it is a perfect addition to a garden of any size and can be grown both inside and out.
Laurus nobilis “Aurea”
The Laurus nobilis “Aurea”, commonly known as golden bay, is a large evergreen shrub or, eventually, very small tree, growing to a maximum height of 8 metres.
It sports attractive golden leaves which are particularly useful for providing winter colour, and these leaves can also be used in cooking.
Growing in a broad, conical habit, this type of bay tree can also be trimmed and trained into stylish shapes and can also form smaller hedges.
Like the Laurus nobilis, the golden bay can be grown either in the ground or in large pots or containers.
Laurus nobilis “Angustifolia”
Laurus nobilis “Angustifolia” is a rare shrub with slender, willow-like leaves which can also be used in cooking. This variety is hardier than the traditional bay tree and can be successfully grown outside in colder climates, although it thrives best in a sunny position.
Commonly known as a narrow-leaved bay tree, this species can also be clipped creatively into a work of art and grows well both in the ground and large containers.
This variety is smaller and can reach an eventual height of around 6 metres and 5 metres in width although, as with the others, don’t hold your breath as this can take up to fifty years.
How to grow
Bay trees are wonderfully versatile and can be grown inside or out and in the ground or in containers.
If planting in the garden, choose a sheltered spot with well-drained soil, in full sun or partial shade. You can ready the soil by digging in compost and grit. If you are planting bay for formal structure, ensure that the young tree is standing straight to achieve the best aesthetic.
Once planted, water well and continue to water regularly for a couple of weeks to help your bay establish itself.
If you are growing your bay in a container, then be sure to use tree and shrub compost and water well in summer when it is more likely to dry out.
When growing bay trees inside, position it by a sunny window, avoiding exposure to drafts and heated appliances.
How to care for bay trees
Bay trees are generally problem-free and easy to maintain; the most complex care comes if you are training it as topiary.
Bay trees should be pruned in summer with secateurs, and old plants can be cut back hard in spring to give them a new lease of life. Be patient with older plants as it can take them a while to get their vitality back, you can prune them over two years by cutting half the stems back one year and the other half the following year.
Top tip: If you are trying to train your bay tree as a topiary specimen for the first time, we highly recommend purchasing a topiary frame. This will help you sculpt your bay tree into your desired shape. For the best results, regularly prune through the growing season.
Problems and pests
Bay trees are relatively trouble-free, but there are a few things to keep an eye out for.
If you notice the leaves have become damaged in winter, you can remove them or trim the plant back in spring or summer to encourage new growth.
The primary foliar pests of bay trees are aphids and psyllids. Neem oil can be used to treat this; simply spray all parts of the tree, and the problem should take care of itself.
Harvesting bay leaves
Bay leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season; however, if you wish to harvest a larger quantity, we recommend doing so in midsummer when the leaves are at the peak and have the fullest flavour.
You can use the bay leaves fresh, or if you wish to dry them, place them on a baking sheet, spaced apart, so they aren’t touching and cover with a layer of paper towels. Place the leaves in a warm, dry location, out of direct sunlight. After a week, flip the leaves and leave them to dry for another week and voila! Your dried bay leaves are ready to go!
Neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightning will hurt a man where a bay tree isNicholas Culpeper
Famous botanist, Nicholas Culpeper, testified in 1653 that “neither witch not devil, thunder nor lightning will hurt a man where a bay tree is”. Whilst we cannot guarantee the truth in this statement, we can promise that well-cared-for bay trees will stand the test of time for decades and provide year-round interest to your garden.
No matter what size your garden is, there is always room for a bay tree, and they are an excellent choice for beginners hoping to hone their topiary skills.
Whether they grow in the garden, or in pots, outside or inside, bay trees will reward you, year after year, with their beauty and deliciously flavourful leaves.