Laurus nobilis “the true bay”

Bay Laurel tree

Laurus nobilis plants are the source of culinary bay, a handsome tree that grows throughout the Mediterranean. This herb has a flavor and aroma that is mildly spicy and warm, and seems to pull other savory flavors together in soups, stews and sauces. Usually, the tough leaf is left whole and should be removed before serving. Sometimes you will see recipes calling for 1 Turkish Bay leaf or 1/2 a California Bay leaf. Turkish bay is Laurus nobilis, sometimes called Grecian bay, Mediterranean bay, or true bay, is the plant of cookery and myth

California Bay “Umbellularia californica” is a different plant entirely, and while the leaves have a similar texture the flavor properties are quite different. The flavor and fragrance of California bay is quite pungent and harsh and I never cook with it. Both plants are growing at my home and I occasionally pick a leaf of each, crush and smell in wonderment as to why some food writers continue to instruct “use one Turkish Bay leaf or 1/2 California Bay leaf”. Julia Child, a native of California, was disdainful of California Bay for cooking and in my talks I often say if it wasn’t good enough for Julia it’s not good enough for us.

True Bay, is native to the Mediterranean basin. Italian restaurants often use containerized Bay plants to create outdoor walls and extend seating. Bay, when grown in the ground is hardy to Zone 7. Plants grow in full sun to half shade. Give them a light fertilizing and regular watering the first season and once they are established they can pretty much fend for themselves. Evergreen trees may eventually reach 15′ in height. I recommend regular pruning. The tree in this photo is at our nursery. It grew too large for the assigned space and every three years we cut it to the ground and it happily sprouts from the stump to produce a nice oval bush in a few months.

Our nursery and others offer bay plants for sale. Grow as a single tree, a shrub or planted as a hedge. Because it is such a useful herb and tolerates some shade it is one to add to the garden.

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13 Responses

  1. Thanks for some much-needed clarity about so-called “California Bay.” It always amazed me when catalogues showed a huge wreath of bay leaves, that they could grow so much and use it so lavishly. Most often, I learned, those are not true Bay.
    The other thing your readers should know is that Umbellularia Californica has not been given G.R.A.S. (generally recognized as safe) status by the FDA. This is used for plants (usually wild) that do not have commercial potential but can be used for food or flavor, such as our Kentucky spicebush. U. Californica is associated with reports of confusion, hallucination, tremors and other nervous system disturbances.
    True Bay is rewarding with a little effort and courage. After 3 or 4 failures, I got serious and bought a 2-year-old plant in a gallon pot, instead of a 3″ plug, & finally succeeded in growing L. nobilis. Here in southern Zone 6, my 4 trees live happily in the greenhouse in cold weather and in the shade of our locust and water maples the rest of the time.

    • Thank you for your well stated reply. We have a hedge of “True Bay” here at the nursery and I love cooking with these leaves. Add a bay leaf or two and all the flavors in a soup or stew seem to come together or as the old chefs would say “the flavors marry”.

    • Thank you for your detailed and informative reply.

  2. trying to buy seeds / plant for laurus nobilis i live in levittown pa. just outside of philadelphia

  3. I’ve found the seeds are rquite slow to produce results. I suppose we could collect seeds for you if we had an idea of how many your want.

    Rose Marie

  4. Any hints on rooting cuttings of Bay? My container trees are getting a little tall to be hauled in and out of the greenhouse. I hate for those long shoots to go to waste! Thanks!

    • Most bay plants are propagated from cuttings and it’s not difficult, just time consuming as cuttings often take several months to root. We use straight perlite as our rooting medium, trim the cuttings so there is not too much leaf material to support. We have them on a mist bench with bottom heat. Inmost home situations this will need to be adapted by sticking several cuttings into a well drained pot of perlite, give it a watered so it never dries out, keep it out of direct sun and if possible put on a low temp heat mat. If that is not available just count on it all taking a little more time. If you won’t be able to water for several days give it a soak and hood with an unfastened plastic bag so there is still a little air circulation.
      My own solution to to contaienr grown bay is to occasionally root prune and fill in the empty space with fresh soil. I also cut off excessive top growth. The pruning reinvigorates the plant and allows me to keep it in the same pot.

    • Hi Nancy,
      Cuttings need a little bottom heat to nudge them along. I always think cuttings need warm feet and a cool head. I find that fall cuttings of bay take the fastest, those that are slightly supple. Use root tone to help them form a callus to speed root and be patient and don’t be afraid to try cuttings now since you have the plant material.
      I have kept bay plants in the same container for many years with a combination of root pruning and top pruning.

  5. Thanks for the advice. There are 6 stout but flexible shoots in a good-sized tub of vermiculite right now. I’ve been using Maxicrop instead of root tone for years with rosemary, verbena etc. Good results. I need to work on the heat part, since my heat mats are all covered with basil seedlings this time of year.

    I wonder if your method would work with Makrut lime, also. It’s covered with new growth.

    Thanks also for the tip about container size. I was starting to wonder what to do about my largest bay, since the greenhouse is only about 10 feet high, and the pot is just about liftable. Wish I could plant it outside like yours, but climate change seems to be bringing us deeper fluctuations along with overall warmth.

    Thanks much!
    Nancy

  6. How long does it usually take for these seeds to be in full bloom? I was just wondering.

    Thanks

  7. PLEASE TELL ME THE PRICE OF A LAURIS NOBILIS PLANT.

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