I’ll admit, that my home is peppered with houseplants. Some have been given to me as gifts from friends and family; some I’ve purchased myself to accent our living space. While I don’t often “need” a reason to buy a new plant I appreciate it immensely when one can serve double duty: being an attractive houseplant and serving a function as well. Bay laurel is a great example of just that and it just got put at the top of my want list.
Growing bay laurel indoors should be considered by anyone who uses bay leaves for cooking and is looking to add to their indoor houseplant collection.
What is Bay Laurel?
Also known as sweet bay or laurel, bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) is a perennial evergreen in the Lauraceae family that is native to the Mediterranean region.
Laurel plants are rich in history. During the ancient Greek and Roman times, the leaves were woven together to create highly renowned crowns to adorn the heads of athletes and rulers. The trees were also grown close to temples so the foliage could be harvested and burned during sacred temple rituals.
Bay laurel is typically grown as a tree that can reach staggering heights upwards of 50-feet; it also works incredibly well as a container plant that moves between your outdoor and indoor spaces, or is kept indoors year-round. Plants display medium-sized, glossy green leaves that are highly aromatic and commonly used in cooking.
Many people are familiar with bay leaves but they may not be aware that they come from the bay laurel trees. Bay leaves are most commonly known for their culinary uses, but they also have a handful of other uses as well.
Bay leaves are most often used in many Mediterranean dishes, either as whole fresh bay leaves or the dried leaves are ground using a mortar and pestle.
Recipes for soups, stews, and casseroles may instruct you to throw a single, whole bay leaf or two into the dish while cooking and then removed prior to serving. Traditionally thyme, sage, and bay leaf - sometimes rosemary and tarragon too - are tied in a bundle known as a bouquet garni and added to the liquid of soups and stews for flavor.
In addition to its popularity in the kitchen, bay laurel has many helpful homeopathic uses too.
- As an astringent (1) to aid with bruises, burns, and insect bites. Add 1 tablespoon of filtered or distilled water to 1 ½ tablespoons of finely ground bay leaf powder, mixing to form a paste that can be applied to the skin.
- Make a poultice to treat poison ivy or joint pain. Take fresh bay leaves and crush them into a pulp. Spread the pulp evenly across the skin of the affected area, wrapping with gauze or muslin to hold in place.
- Massage therapy oil for relief of aches and pains. Place about 100g of clean, fresh bay leaves in a glass jar and add 1 liter of cold-pressed olive oil. Seal the jar and set in a large pan filled with water; bring to a boil and simmer for 2 hours. Strain the oil, discard the bay leaves, and repeat the process with another 100g of fresh bay leaves and the strained oil. Strain again and then pour the infused oil into a clean container for use.
- Aromatherapy to calm the mind and help relax the body. Simply place 3-4 sundried leaves in a flame-resistant bowl and burn. The fragrance acts as incense, with the aroma filling the air.
While bay leaves are no longer used to create crowns for athletes or those holding power, they are still used to make decorative crowns, wreaths, and garlands.
How to grow
Bay laurel is winter hardy in USDA hardiness zones 8-11. In areas with cold climates (down to USDA zone 4 or 5) a bay leaf plant can be grown in a container as a patio plant during the warmer months and then brought inside and added to your indoor herb garden when temperatures drop.
Potted plants can also be ground indoors year-round, as they make a gorgeous addition to your home’s decor.
To grow bay laurel in a container, you will need the following basic supplies.
Unlike many other herbs, bay laurel is very slow to start from seed, unfortunately. It is recommended you purchase a small plant from a local nursery or garden center, or if you have access to an existing tree you can propagate a new tree via air layering using this protocol:
- Take a long stem or branch from the existing plant and bend it down towards the soil/potting mix. Be careful to not snap this stem or branch off of the plant.
- Using pieces of wire or small metal stakes, secure the stem to the growing media leaving the top 3 to 4-inches of the stem free.
- Over time new roots should form at the nodes that are in contact with the soil.
- Once roots have developed, carefully cut the newly rooted stem from the main plant and transplant it into a container.
When grown in a vegetable garden, or a flower garden bed, a bay leaf tree likes well-draining soil and is tolerant of a range of pH from 4.5 to 8. For potted containers opt for a growing media that is slightly acidic (pH between 6-7) that has good water holding capacity yet freely drains excess moisture. Bay laurel doesn’t like to be waterlogged but it doesn’t like to have dry soil either.
Commercially available potting soils or coconut coir are great options; both are lightweight, avoid compaction, and have excellent water retention properties. You can add extra perlite or vermiculite to potting soil to increase drainage if you want.
To help maintain the balance between adequate soil moisture versus too much or too little, look for a container that is plastic or fiberglass as opposed to terra cotta or ceramic. These will hold onto soil moisture a little longer.
Make sure there are good drainage holes in the bottom or add them yourself to let the excess water drain out.
Choose containers that are always a few inches wider and deeper than the root ball of your tree, to allow room for root growth.
Bay Laurel and Rosemary are two hearty herbs that grow well together.
Care and Harvesting
Bay laurel is a pretty easy-going plant, even when grown indoors, when you give it the following basic care.
To achieve the lush foliage on bay trees make sure to put them in a location that receives full sun to partial shade. Exposure to a south or west-facing window is best when grown indoors.
If you see signs of too little light you can supplement with a grow light or even try giving it some exposure to extra fluorescent light.
Bay laurel is somewhat indifferent to fluctuations in temperatures, as long as they are above freezing and stay below 90℉. Keep your tree in the main living areas of your home where temperatures range between 60 and 75℉ for optimum growth; below this and growth will slow considerably as the plant will think it’s time to go dormant.
Due to the Mediterranean origin, bay laurel prefers high humidity levels. Humidity levels inside most homes are on the drier side; to combat this periodically mist your tree when grown indoors or grow it in a high humidity area of the home such as the bathroom.
Plants like the potting mix or growing media to be slightly moist at all times without being waterlogged. Water regularly during the warmer months, making sure to not let the root ball dry out. During the dormant season, you can ease up on the watering slightly, letting the top inch of growing media dry out before watering again.
Apply a balanced organic fertilizer (compost tea or fish emulsion works well) once during the spring and then once again later in the summer. Do not fertilize when the plant is dormant during the colder months.
For the most part, bay laurel has few problems with diseases or pests. Avoid letting the soil become waterlogged to avoid root rot, and carefully watch for aphids, scale insects, and bay sucker which is known as jumping plant lice. Treat infestations quickly to minimize long-term damage.
Every 2 to 3 years move the plant to a larger container and refresh the potting soil. Plants will tolerate being slightly rootbound so there isn’t a need to repot every year like with some indoor container plants.
Bay laurel is slow growing so it isn’t necessary for the health of the tree to prune it regularly but can be done. Like other plants, pruning will encourage more vigorous growth and bushier trees.
When grown indoors it is important to keep the height of your plant manageable. Keep indoor plants trimmed so they resemble a small tree, growing no larger than 5 or 6-feet tall.
You can also shape your bay laurel into topiary forms if so desired. It’s best to do this in early spring or fall.
This is the biggest difference between a bay plant and your other “common” herbs – wait to harvest leaves until your tree is at least two years old. Then use sharp scissors or pruning shears to remove the foliage you desire.
After harvesting, lay fresh leaves on a parchment paper-covered tray in a single layer and allow to dry for a couple of weeks in a warm, dry room in your house. Then store the whole dried bay leaves in an airtight container or grind them up for future use.
If you’re in the market for a gorgeous houseplant that serves double duty by providing leaves with culinary and even medicinal uses, you should certainly consider adding a bay laurel plant to your collection! Beautiful and functional, these trees are easy to care for and have few insect or disease problems. Give them the right amount of light, the correct temperature, and keep the soil moist and you’ll be rewarded with aromatic foliage to use in a variety of ways.
- Nayak, S., Nalabothu, P., Sandiford, S., Bhogadi, V., & Adogwa, A. (2006). Evaluation of wound healing activity of Allamanda cathartica. L. and Laurus nobilis. L. extracts on rats. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 6, 12. doi:10.1186/1472-6882-6-12