Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
April, 2011
Regional Report

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Bay laurel makes a great ornamental that offers culinary qualities too.

Bay Laurel

When I come across a plant that is both ornamental and edible, it will soon find a place in my landscape. Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) is one of those plants. This noble herb has a rich history and reached mythological status with the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The term "poet laureate" points back to the fact that honored poets and other heroes were given wreaths made of bay branches to adorn their heads. It has been credited with various medicinal qualities, and an oil from the plant is used in some perfumes.

In our day bay laurel is best known for its culinary qualities. The leaves have a wonderful aroma and are used to flavor a wide variety of dishes, including stews, soups, meats, and fish. The International Herb Association chose bay as its Herb of the Year for 2009. The wonderful herbal-floral fragrance is most concentrated in the leaves after a few days of drying.

Over a dozen years ago I bought a small bay plant in a 4" pot. It soon found a home in a gallon pot and then an attractive larger container. Bay makes a great container plant and can be pruned to maintain it in a nice shrub form. The container made a great outdoor feature plant on patio or porch.

When we moved to a home with a large sunny backyard the bay went out into a garden bed with roses and other herbs. There it has stayed for over a decade now, getting larger as my attention to pruning went to other chores. The evergreen dark green foliage makes it quite an ornamental feature year round.

Bay is usually considered hardy to zone 8 or a little into the lower parts of 7, if you're lucky. I have been waiting for the winter that takes it to the ground, knowing that it would resprout in time. This past winter we reached the upper teens and I figured it was going to be taken back to near the ground, but to my surprise, it came through just fine. Gardeners in zones 7 and north can keep their bay laurels in a container and move them into a protected spot when the plant needs protection from the cold.

Our plant has thrived with little care aside from some periodic watering during dry spells. I don't fertilize mine, which may account for its extra hardiness this past winter -- a fast growing, succulent plant would have been more susceptible to the cold.

There is a related species native to the lower south called red bay (Persea borbonia). Its leaves are also aromatic, and it was popular as a spice plant with pioneers to the region. In many parts of the Lower South it grows wild, forming a large tree.

The next time you're out plant shopping, keep your eye out for a small bay tree to bring home. Then grab a cookbook for some recipe ideas. Oh yeah, and get ready to make yourself a wreath to celebrate your new garden addition.

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