Grow your own bay tree

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Nearly every wintery stew, casserole or hearty soup I enjoy making includes a bay leaf, so I couldn’t be without my bay tree. Fresh bay leaves have a much stronger, “bay leaf” flavour than the dried ones and bay trees are easy to grow as, edible expert and author, Penny Woodward explains………..

Bays (Laurus nobilis ) were seen by the old herbalists as a virtuous tree which “resisteth witchcraft very potently”. The Greeks dedicated them to Apollo, the sun god. The Delphic priestesses, oracles of Apollo, held bay leaves between their lips as they made prophesies. In Greek and Roman cultures victors, heroes, academics and artistic figures were rewarded with a wreath or crown of bay leaves. This gave rise to the terms ‘baccalaureate’ and ‘poet laureate’.

A bay tree in flower

A bay tree in flower

Bays are unusual in the world of herbs because they can grow into large trees, sometimes as high as 20 metres. But they are very slow growing and with careful pruning make excellent lawn specimens, topiary trees, pot plants or hedges. They are tough, useful, evergreen aromatic plants with shiny, dark green elliptical leaves. Male and female flowers grow on different trees but all are greenish yellow and fairly inconspicuous. The flowers on female trees, once fertilised, develop into dark purple berries. Bays grow in most soils as long as the drainage is good, but like lots of sun and protection from harsh winds, especially cold. Young trees don’t like frosts but become more resistant as they grow.

New bay trees can be grown from seed, cuttings, or by detaching suckers. As seeds rarely germinate unless conditions are ideal (which includes constant temperatures around 24°C) and cuttings of semi-ripe shoots taken in summer can take up to 6 months to develop roots, the average gardener is probably better off buying an established plant or taking a sucker from an existing tree.

Bay trees can be prunned to  become feature trees

Bay trees can be prunned to become feature trees

Use bay leaves either fresh or dried, but fresh leaves are much more flavoursome. Add them whole to soups, stews, casseroles and meat sauces, removing before serving.

One or two fresh bay leaves placed in food containers will prevent moths and bugs from infesting flours and cereals, and put between the pages of a book will help to repel silverfish. In fact the whole tree is disease and pest resistant and will protect other plants in the area from many insect pests.

The bay tree has been credited with numerous medicinal properties over the centuries, but is probably most useful now as an oil that brings relief when rubbed into aching limbs and muscles. Combine two handfuls of crushed fresh leaves, enough light olive oil to cover and one tablespoon of white vinegar in a screw topped jar. Leave it on a sunny windowsill, shaking regularly for a month. Strain and use when needed.

Bay trees are supposed to protect us from devils, witches, thunder and lightning so obviously no garden should be without one!

Check out Penny Woodward’s website www.pennywoodward.com.au for more interesting articles or to buy one of her great books. OR follow her on Facebook HERE.  

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If you are looking to grow a bay tree in a small space or a pot, keep an eye out for the Laurus Baby Bay – a fast growing tree, that reaches no more than 2 metres high. 

babybay tree

The larger growing bay trees are readily available from all good nurseries and garden centres or online at The Diggers Club.

 

 

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About the author

In 2003 I completed a Bachelor of Agricultural Science at The University of Melbourne. And I am experienced at gardening in all conditions, having lived – and gardened – on a small farm, in tiny apartments, in crowded share houses and on your average suburban house block. I now work full time in the horticulture industry and I’m a presenter on The Garden Gurus, channel 9. I would like to show, particularly the younger generations, that sustainable gardening, and growing at least some of the food you eat – is possible no matter where you live!

16 Responses

    • Chloe

      Hi Melissa, bay trees are tolerant of any kind of rough pruning. In fact some people grow them as hedges and trim with electric hedge trimmers! If it’s a young tree (newly planted) I’d safely take a third off the top to help try and bush out the rest of the plant. If a more mature tree it could be tricky to take off a third, but just give it a good top only prune. Also there is one bay tree that has a much narrower, upright growth habit: http://www.touchofclassplants.com.au/product-detail/?id=396 – if you have this one, then it won’t bush out as much as the others might. Good luck! A dosh of organic fertiliser could also help – even just chook manure would be helpful.

      Reply
  1. Janet

    My bay tree has developed some disease and/being eaten by something. Has large brown burnt looking patches on the leaves. What can I do?
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Chloe

      Hi Janet,
      Try giving the tree a good cut back, making sure you cut out any of the areas with brown, burnt leaves. Dispose of the diseased looking cuttings in your rubbish bin or council green waste bin. Bay trees respond well to regular cut backs, so it should thrive. Apply some organic fertiliser around the base to give it a boost too.
      Cheers
      Chloe

      Reply
  2. Wendy

    Hi Chloe,I have a large bay tree growing along the fence and since I didn’t put it in, I am wondering if there are any poisionous bay trees, and is it safe to use the leaves in cooking, thank you.

    Reply
    • Chloe

      Hi Wendy,
      If you are certain it is a bay tree (Laurus nobilis) then yes all bay tree leaves are edible. If you are at all in doubt. Take a branch to your local nursery and ask :-)
      Enjoy!
      Cheers
      Chloe

      Reply
  3. Gavin

    Hi Chloe, I have just planted 5 bay trees (each of them about 4 feet tall). I’m wanting to hedge them. What growth rate should I expect to see? Note, I’m in Perth. Cheers

    Reply
    • Chloe

      Hi Gavin,
      Difficult to guess on growth rate as it will depend a bit on soil type, fertilising etc. My parents have a 10 year old tree that is about 12 metres tall – its in a heavy, poor soil and full sun.
      Keep up a regular dose of organic fertiliser once a season and regular applications of liquid seaweed. You may want to lightly trim the tops to encourage side growth and bushiness too.
      Cheers
      Chloe

      Reply
  4. Sarah

    Hi Chloe,
    I’ve read on another website that the Bay tree is deciduous but you don’t mention that. I live in the Sunshine Coast hinterland and want to plant my potted Bay into the ground.
    Thanks
    Sarah

    Reply
    • Chloe

      Hi Sarah,
      No bay trees are not deciduous. Just make sure your tree has good drainage and plenty of sunshine.
      :-) Cheeers
      Chloe

      Reply
  5. Eleanor

    Hi Chloe,
    Not sure if you’ll get this message but it can’t hurt to try…. I was given a young bay tree for Christmas and have transferred it to a large pot.

    It seems happy enough but it looks like something has been eating at the lower leaves. The only articles I’ve found online so far are English but I’m not sure if UK pests will be the same as Australian pests so I thought I’d seek some more local advice….

    I can’t find any evidence of insects or slugs etc….. any ideas what could be finding my little tree so tasty?? Possums? Rodents??

    Thanks

    Eleanor

    Reply
    • Chloe

      Hi Eleanor,
      It’s most likely possums or rabbits eating your bay trees lower leaves. I’ve noticed rabbits nibbling on the lower branches of my smallest bay tree.
      Try putting up a ring of netting around the tree to see if it stops the nibbling and improves the plants growth :-)
      Give the tree a nice dose of liquid seaweed and gentle organic fertiliser like Seamungus or another organic pelletised product.
      Good luck!
      Cheers
      Chloe

      Reply

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