Round Robin: Bay Laurel – A Classic Beauty

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ATLANTA, Georgia–A plant of classical fame, bay (Laurus nobilis) crowned scholars and poet laureates (it is the source of the “berries of laurel” that give the baccalaureate degree its name), distinct from victorious generals, who wore circlets of oak. Bay is a half-hardy, woody shrub in Atlanta, often grown in large tubs on patios or decks. Half-hardy means that during a cold snap (around 5 to 8 degrees), I drag the plants into the garage until the temperature behaves itself and climbs back into the 30s. Sometimes, oversized plants are planted in a protected spot in the garden and behave like camellias, dying back during severe winters and sprouting again from the roots.

The shiny, evergreen, pointed and fragrant bay leaves prefer some shade. I have two large, shrubby plants on our deck, and I’m able to pick fresh leaves whenever I do a shrimp boil or want to add rich, herbal flavor to a hearty wintertime beef stew. They are also great as a long-lasting sprig of greenery in an impromptu corsage.

In addition to my other bays, I’m attempting to grow a standard bay laurel; this summer its single trunk shot up to six feet. I’m vigilant about keeping side branches from sprouting along the trunk, and last June I pulled off seven green-wood stems, each with a heel of tissue from the mother trunk. Although bay is notorious for its difficulty to root, I had to try.

I filled a recycled Styrofoam box (formerly used for shipping grapes) to the brim with my favorite rooting medium: equal parts by volume of vermiculite, perlite and milled sphagnum moss. Each component gives a different quality to the mix: Vermiculite and ground sphagnum moss absorb moisture; perlite creates air spaces.

After stripping the leaves off of the bottom portion of each stem, I stuck them half-way into the moistened rooting mix and put them in the shade, where they got regular watering along with other plants summering outside. I did not use rooting hormones, mist or shade cloth, and I didn’t really pay much attention to them. Imagine my surprise when by mid-July they had all rooted, with four or five long, stringy white roots coming out of the bottom of each stem. I potted them up and now have seven young bay trees that will be popped into the cold frame for extra winter protection.

Next spring I will top off the bay standard, forcing side shoots to sprout near the cut as I develop the classic topiary shape. It’s always something.

Agastache foeniculum ‘Golden Jubilee’ is terrific with its contrast of bright blue flowers and chartreuse foliage.

Seed of bay laurel is likewise reputed to be finicky. I’ve never had flowers, nor seed, set on true bays growing in my part of the country, but I did see bay in flower and fruit in the south of Spain. I have ordered fresh seed from several of the more diligent nurseries because old, dried seed is supposed to be hard to sprout. They sent fresh seed in foil packets in mid-summer, and the large seeds sprouted with success (although the young plants were slow-growing).

Geri Laufer is a horticulturist, lecturer, author, and herb gardener in Atlanta, Georgia.

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