The Casual Gardener: Bay straddles the divide between aromatic and ornamental

Bay laurel brings adds flavour in the kitchen and sophistication to the garden

Bay laurel comes in many shapes that work well where space is limited. Picture by Sjoerd Eickmans

BAY trees – or bay laurel – are more often than not deployed to bring an air of sophistication to a doorway, patio or balcony. I must confess that my own bay doesn't quite fulfil the desired effect, having being severely damaged by the hard winter of 2011. It seems perfectly happy and continues to produce scores of those trademark green leaves but its shape is far from uniform and rather untypically it has several stems, a phenomenon I believe was triggered by the same prolonged cold spell that ravaged the foliage.

Bay laurel can be found in the wild in Asia Minor and the eastern part of the Mediterranean, where it grows to be a fairly tall shrub or small tree, reaching a height of up to 15 metres.

The Romans brought it to western Europe, alert to its culinary properties even then. This is the dried leaf that lends flavour to stews, soups and casseroles, though they are best fished out of the pan before serving, as they remain hard and are not especially appetising. Bay leaves are part of the classic 'bouquet garni', a bunch of herbs made up of two sprigs of parsley, a sprig of thyme and a bay leaf.

For the Ancients bay also symbolised success and triumph, victors and heroes were given a wreath made of laurel leaves, that prevails in imagery today.

Bay laurel blooms with white flowers which appear as umbels in the leaf axils and later become oval berries. The plant remains green all through the year, with oval leaves that feature a light vein that looks like a feather. In a garden setting, it straddles the divide between being an aromatic herb and an ornamental – and can be both simultaneously. It's available in many shapes, such as a pillar or standard, which work well where there is limited space available.

The bay laurel range is limited and generally you'll find the ‘ordinary' green-leaved variety at your non-specialist nursery or garden centre. However, there are a few cultivars with different leaf colours and shapes.

Sometimes the foliage is more wavy, elongated, rounder or smaller, with variegated leaves in white or gold and a light outer edge. It's a plant well suited to topiary, hence there are pyramid, cylinder, cube, cone and ball shapes, and the trunks can be both straight and twisted. Plants already cut to shape tend to be significantly more expensive, as they are slow growing and can be at least a dozen years old by the time they can be shaped. They can, however, live up to 100 years.

Bay will tolerate full sun and partial shade. Ensure you have a sturdy pot, lined with heavy crocs to stop it from blowing over. Prune in June and clip into shape with sharp, clean secateurs. If need be, it can be pruned again in December but always make sure you cut the branches, not the leaves.

Drooping young leaves indicate a lack of water but remedy without delay and it will quickly revive but avoid leaving the pot standing in water. A yellowing of leaves indicates that it's getting too much water.

Based on my own experience, I can tell you to be wary of plummeting temperatures. If the mercury drops to five or more degrees Celsius below freezing, it's best to move a bay laurel in a container to a cool dark place such as a shed. You can also wrap up the plant to protect it. Bay laurel does not like being re-potted: once every three to five years is more than enough.

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