Types of bay leaves

Contents

Redbay

Persea borbonia
Family: Lauraceae

Natural History
Leaves and fruit of redbay
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida

Redbay is related to the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), the tree that provides bay leaf spice. The leaves of the redbay can also be used in cooking. It is important to note, however, that similar-looking leaves of some species such as the English laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) may be poisonous. To stay safe, get your bay leaves from the grocery store instead of the forest!

Unfortunately, widespread mortality of the redbay is being experienced in the coastal regions of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida due to a disease called laurel wilt. The disease is caused by a fungus (Raffaelea sp.) that is carried by a non-native insect, the redbay ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus). The fungus inhibits the flow of water in infected trees, causing the leaves to wilt and eventually leading to the death of the plant. Laurel wilt also affects avocado (Persea americana) and other members of the Lauraceae family. The disease is therefore of utmost concern to many stakeholders. The presence of the redbay ambrosia beetle was first detected in the United States in 2002. It was discovered in Florida in 2005.

Habitat & Range

Redbay prefers rich, moist soils along streams and swamp borders in association with both conifers and hardwoods such as sweetbay, swamp tupelo, pond pine, bald cypress, red maple, sweetgum, and loblollybay. However, it occasionally appears on dry, sandy soils in association with longleaf pine. It is found on the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains from Delaware to eastern Texas, north through Louisiana to southern Arkansas, and also in southern Florida.

Wildlife Use

Many songbirds, wild turkey, bobwhite quail, white-tailed deer, and black bear take advantage of the food the leaves and fruit of redbay provide. Bobwhite quail in particular eat a lot of redbay seeds in the fall and winter. Redbay also provides food for the Palamedes swallowtail and Spicebrush swallowtail butterflies.

Human Use

This tree is known to many because of its aromatic leaves that are used to season sauces and soups. The reddish wood is used in cabinetry, interior finishing, and boat construction. The redbay also serves as an attractive ornamental.

Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: Redbay is a attractive, medium-sized evergreen tree that can grow up to 70 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter. In the forest it develops a clear, cylindrical bole and a dense, pyramidal crown with ascending branches. The fleshy, yellowish roots are deep and widespread.
Leaves: Redbay leaves are simple, alternately arranged, and persistent. They are lance-shaped, 3 to 7 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide. The leathery leaves are dark green above and pale green with a waxy layer below. There is rusty pubescence on the midrib. The margins are entire and the leaves emit an aromatic smell when crushed. Leaf apices are acute, while leaf bases are broadly wedge-shaped or rounded. Leaf petioles are stout, rigid, red-brown, and about ½ inch long.
Twigs: The twigs of the current season are 3-angled and are somewhat fluted, light brown, and glabrous except for a coating of pale or rusty-red pubescence when they first appear. The pith is whitish, rounded, and homogeneous.
Bark: The bark is reddish-brown and divided by deep, irregular fissures into broad, flat, superficially scaly ridges. If you scrape off some of the bark surface of this tree, you will find a reddish-brown layer underneath. This is a distinguishing characteristic.
Flowers: The flowers of this tree are perfect, light yellow-green and appear in small clusters in leaf axils.
Fruit: The fruit is a small, round, bright blue or lustrous blue-black drupe 1/3 to ½ inch long. The fruit matures in early fall.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:

  • Southern magnolia also has alternate, simple leaves with smooth margins, but those leaves are larger and stiffer.

Images

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Photo credit: Chris Evans
Illinois Wildlife Action Plan
Bugwood.org
Photo credit: Chris Evans
Illinois Wildlife Action Plan
Bugwood.org
Photo credit: Franklin Bonner
USFS (ret.)
Bugwood.org
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak
University of Florida

Learn More

  • USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) – Persea borbonia
  • UF/IFAS EDIS Fact Sheet
  • USDA/NRCS Fact Sheet
  • 4-H Forest Health: Laurel Wilt Disease
  • 4-H Forest Health: Ambrosia Beetles

Red Bay for all seasonings

Galls and non-edible fruit on the Persea palustris

Persea borbonia, palustris, humilis, and americana, too

Having a famous relative can make one grow in the shadows, as three Perseas know too well.

There are four Perseas growing in Florida, three of them native, one an import. The import is the most famous, Persea americana (PER-see-uh uh-mair-ah-KAY-nuh.) You know it as the avocado. The other three don’t produce an edible fruit so their drupes are left on the tree. But there is more to the native Perseas than meets the eye.

The unsung natives have leaves that can be used for seasoning, just like a bay leaf, and their leaves can be used to make a tea. Better, no matter what your environment you’re in, one of those Three Leafleteers is near you.

P. humilis (HEW-mil-liss) likes it very dry and is found in scrubby areas. P. palustris (pah-LUS-tris) likes it feet very wet so it is a denizen of swamps. P. borbonia ( bor-BOE-nee-uh) likes it between. Fresh or dried leaves from all three can be used for tea and seasoning. But what of the avocado?

Spicebush Swallowtail favors Perseas

Leaves of the Persea Americana var. drymifolia (PER-see-ua ah-mer-ree-KAY-nuh drim-if-OH-lee-ah) have been used in the distant past for a tea and seasoning. Most of our present-day avocado leaves, Persia americana, are stronger because of breeding and are not usable. One way to tell if you have an ancient avocado tree (the Persea Americana var. drymifolia) is to crush the leaf and smell it. The crushed leaf of the older species should smell like anise or liquorish. The Aztex wrapped food in that leaf for flavoring and called that style of cooking tamale. Cooking with modern-day avocado leaves can make you ill… and never ever eat the avocado pit. Those can be deadly. Also keep avocados away from your pets. There is good evidence that cats, dogs, cows, goats, rabbits, rats, birds, fish, and horses can be killed when they consume avocado leaves, bark, skin, or pit.

P. Borbonia is the best known native and is called the Red Bay. Why Red Bay? Bay is the English version of the Latin word Baca, which was the name of similar old world trees in the same family. The “red” comes from the wood of the Borbonia, which has a reddish luster and is prized in woodworking such as for interior finishing and boat interiors. The Indians made spoons from it. Oddly, one of the identifying characters of the Perseas are leaf galls, see picture above. Also, Persea borbonia on the east coast of Florida are dying out becaues of a disease.

Spicebush Swallowtail larva

Borbonia is a mixture of Greek and Latin, Bor — food — and Bon — good, food good, referring to the use of the leaves. Palustris means “of the swamp” and Persea palustris is called the swamp bay. Humilis means low growing. The P. humilis is also known as the “silk bay.” Americana is from the Americas. Drymifolia, from the Greek, is a bit of a mystery. It can mean forest leaf or sharp/stinging/biting leaf.

The Perseas are favored by the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. Apparently its concoction of chemicals doesn’t bother it. Oh, and one last thing: It appears that Persea tea provides some protection against giardia.

Lastly the Persea borbonia and the Persea palustris can be difficult to tell apart though they like slightly different environments, the former neither very wet or very dry, the latter can tolerate very wet. But another key is to look at a leaf petiole, main stem on the underside and the underside of the leaf. According to botanist R. P. Wunderling With the P. borbonia little hairs on the petiol lay down, on the P. palustris they stand up. What I have found locally is that P. borbonia has very little hair at all, and what few it has is generally flat. P. palustris is hairy, not only the petiole and the back leaf spine but the back of the leaf as well. To see the hair, or absence of hair, one needs about a 30x magnification.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: P. Borbonia, the most common, has lance shaped 4-inch long leaves that are shiny bright green on top and light green on bottom. P. Palustris has leaves that are pale gray on the bottom with hairy red fringes, twigs are hairy. Crushing a leaf produces a very distinct bay leaf odor, the Palustis is not as strong as the Borbonia in aroma. Borbonia can reach 70 feet high and three feet through. Palustris 30 to 40 feet. Fruit of both is a small bright blue to shiny black drupe — NOT EDIBLE. Twigs are slender and the bark reddish-brown and scaly. P. Humilis reaches 10 feet tall. Its leaves are bronze on the underside. The leaves of all the Perseas are often covered with galls. That said it seems to me the P. borbornia seems the most affected by galls.

TIME OF YEAR: Fresh or dried leaves year round

ENVIRONMENT: P. Borbonia, like P. Palustris is found from Virginia south to Florida and west to Texas. P. Humilis is fond only in Central Floirda. Plustris is found in wet areas, Borbonia in neither wet or dry places. Humilis is found in sandy, dry scrub areas.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Fresh or dried leaves used as a bay leaf or as tea. The fruits of the palustris, borbonia and humilis are NOT edible. Avocado leaves (variation drymifolia) can be used to wrap food if it smells like anise.

HERB BLURB

The leaves have been used as an abortifacient, analgesic, emetic and febrifuge. They have been used to treat fevers, headaches, diarrhea, thirst, constipation, appetite loss and blocked urination. An external decoction wash has been used for rheumatic joints and painful limbs.

What Happened to our Red Bay Trees? | Gardening | Myrtle Beach Sun News

Large brown patches of the dead trees blight the beautiful landscape along the coastal plain. In the woodlands from southern Virginia to Florida and on to eastern Texas, for centuries red bay trees have been a major understory tree. They have thrived in parks and back yards. Suddenly the red bays are dead, dying and at risk of extinction.

Laurel wilt is the cause. It is a relatively new plant disease carried by an exotic beetle. This is yet another case of a non-native species invading our forests, parks and backyards. The disease is caused by a fungus carried by the red bay ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus) which is native to parts of Asia.

The beetle was first detected in Georgia in 2002. It made its way from Asia to the U.S. embedded in wooden shipping materials that came into Port Wentworth near Savannah. Since its identification the beetle has already moved into the red bay tree population in eight coastal states.

Scientists believe the beetle, unaided, moves at a rate of about 20 miles per year. However, just as the beetle was assisted by humans in its jump from Asia to the southeastern US, it is likely the beetle has had human help with its local journey too. Dying red bay trees reflect the beetles track northward as far as southeastern North Carolina. A trail of dead and dying trees leads southward through the entire state of Florida and west across the Gulf States to Texas. That’s more than 20 miles per year.

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Laurel wilt is a fungus disease that affects certain trees in the laurel family, particularly red bay (Persea borbonia) and swamp bay. Other susceptible plants include sassafras, avocado, spicebush, pond spice and camphor. Loblolly bay and sweet bay (magnolias) have not been susceptible to the disease.

Female ambrosia beetles carry laurel wilt fungus in their mouth parts. The female beetle deposits the fungus as she bores into a tree to lay her eggs. The fungus grows in the tunnels she has hollowed out and feeds the developing larvae. The disease disrupts a tree’s circulatory system, blocking the movement of water from its roots to the rest of the tree. As a result, the tree wilts and dies.

The first symptom of laurel wilt appears as toothpick-like tubes of sawdust that jut out from bore holes in the trunk or branches of a tree. Boring dust around the base of a tree indicates a major invasion, but wind and water can easily carry away this fragile evidence. The tree’s leaves droop and turn red, purple and brown. A peeling away of the bark on the trunk reveals black streaking on the sapwood. Trees typically die within six months of infection.

Red bays are significant for ecological reasons. Deer and black bear browse on their evergreen foliage. Songbirds, quail and wild turkeys feed on the trees’ blue berries. Palamedes swallowtail butterflies depend on the dark green leaves to lay their eggs and nourish their larvae.

The rapid demise the once plentiful tree has already changed the species make up in affected areas where other types of trees are replacing the red bays.

The avocado, also in the laurel family, is economically valuable in Florida where avocado production is an important industry. Laurel wilt has already been identified in isolated cases among avocado trees.

Laurel wilt is established. Forestry and environmental professionals warn that, tragically, we may lose all of our red bay trees. We are unable stop the spread of the beetle and associated fungus, but we can slow its movement.

Sanitation is a critical part of management. The South Carolina Forestry Commission urges homeowners to keep infected wood on site where it may be cut, chipped and burned. (Remember to comply with local ordinances relating to an outdoor burn.) They advise that diseased wood should not be transported unless it is to the local landfill.

Homeowners, campers, fishermen, second home owners and vacationers should not transport firewood. Instead, it should be bought where it will be burned.

If you suspect you have a diseased red bay tree on your property call your local extension office.

Reach Debbie Menchek, a Clemson Master Gardener, at [email protected]

Redbay Ambrosia Beetle and Laurel Wilt

The Problem: By 2005, about three years after the redbay ambrosia beetle was first found on the East coast of the USA, it was found to be associated with redbay (Persea borbonia) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum) mortality in coastal areas of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. Potential host plants in the Eastern USA will likely include all members of the Lauraceae family such as Asian spicebush (Lindera latifolia), yellow litsea (Litsea elongate), and the threatened and endangered native species pondspice (Litsea aestivalis) and pondberry (Lindera melissifolia). The major cause of plant death is not so much feeding by adult and larval beetles, but from a plant pathogen, the laurel wilt fungus, Raffaelea lauricola, which is lethal to native US plants in the family Lauraceae, the group to which redbay ambrosia beetle attacks. When adult beetles attack a tree they introduce into feeding tunnels spores of the fungus. The spores used to inoculate a tree are carried in special structures called mycangia which are found on the beetle’s mandibles or biting mouthparts. These mycangia exist as a pair, one on each mandible. As the fungus grows it destroys the food and water conducting systems of the tree eventually killing it. The adult and larval beetles living in the infected tree feed on the fungus (i.e., the ambrosia, a term from Greek mythology which described the food of the Gods, not laurel wilt fungus.)

In the Southeast USA, redbay is an important tree species in the coastal plain. The economic importance of this tree is limited to cabinet making, boatbuilding, and veneer work. In urban areas, redbay trees are often planted or are purposefully left in during construction to beautify landscapes. Redbay are of ecological importance to many species of birds that feed on the fruit, and deer and bear browse on the foliage and berries. The Palamedes swallowtail (Papilio palamedes) depends on redbay for the completion of its lifecycle; the larvae feed primarily on redbay leaves and as redbay declines because of the redbay ambrosia beetle and laurel wilt fungus it is possible that animals relying on this common plant will suffer and the ecology of these native forest communities will be greatly changed.

Damage: Damage to trees infested with redbay ambrosia beetles is identifiable by the emergence of saw dust tooth picks that radiate from the trunks and branches of infested trees. These toothpicks are the frass or excreta of feeding beetles being pushed out of feeding galleries. Examination of the inside of the trunk will reveal bluish staining caused by the laurel wilt fungus. When taken together, the appearance of tunnels, tooth picks, and bluish staining is strongly suggestive that a tree is infested with beetles and fungus, especially if the host plant is a member of the Lauraceae.

Spread: One major way that the redbay ambrosia beetle and laurel wilt fungus will spread quickly out of the southeast USA is via the movement of wood that is infested with beetles (larvae or adults). Consequently, redbay and other host woody forest species from infested areas should not be moved or sold as firewood. Tree trimmings, BBQ smoke-wood, and mulch all have the potential to move the beetle and the fungus into new areas. Efforts should be made to reduce the likelihood that the beetle and the fungus will be introduced again into new areas in wooden packing materials originating from the home range of these pests in southeast Asia.

The Threat to California, Mexico, and Central and South America:Redbay ambrosia beetle and laurel wilt fungus pose a dire threat to California, and also to Mexico and countries in Central and South America. The two big problems accidental introduction of these pests into California will cause are the death of avocado trees (Persea americana) and native California bay laurels (Umbellularia californica). Research in Florida has clearly demonstrated that avocados and California bay laurel are very susceptible to attack by redbay ambrosia beetles and infection by laurel wilt fungus occurs and plant death results.

Avocados are an iconic California crop, and the state has the largest avocado industry in the USA. There are approximately 6,000 avocado growers in California farming around 66,000 acres, and in 2007-2008 the Hass avocado harvest was valued at $328 million. Redbay ambrosia beetle and laurel wilt fungus would present a formidable management challenge to avocado growers and homeowners with backyard trees.

California bay laurel trees (also known as pepperwood, Oregon myrtle or myrtlewood), are a common and attractive native West coast evergreen tree that can grow up to 30 m tall. Bay laurels have a range that extends from the Northern Baja Peninsula, into the foothills of the Western Sierras and north into Oregon. California bay laurels occupy habitat from around sea level up to 1,600 m in elevation.

Redbay ambrosia beetle and the laurel wilt fungus pose a severe threat to cultivated and wild avocados in Mexico, Central America, and South America. The avocado is native to cloud and subtropical forests in central Mexico and the native range of this tree extends into the highlands of Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama in Central America. Widespread mortality of avocados will affect Mexican farmers who are the world’s largest producers of fresh avocados, subsistence farmers and families who cultivate avocados in small gardens, and incredible wildlife, in particular birds like the Quetzal (the national icon of Guatemala). Quetzals feed on small wild avocados and fruit of other trees in the family Lauraceae and swallow these fruit whole. They later regurgitate the pits helping to spread seeds of wild avocados and other closely related trees through the forests.

Laurus Nobilis

Bay laurel is an aromatic evergreen tree in the flowering Lauraceae family. It features shiny, dark green oval-shaped leaves with a leathery texture that are popularly used as a kitchen seasoning.

Photo by Lorna Kring.

Native to the Mediterranean region, it’s considered to be one of the oldest of cultivated trees. Other common names include sweet, true, and Grecian laurel.

L. nobilis grows several inches each year. Photo by Lorna Kring.

Planted in the garden, it can reach a mature height of 25-55 feet, although most are kept at 2-8 feet with persistent trimming.

Small clumps of yellow flowers form in spring, followed by small purple drupes that contain a single seed.

Highly prized as an ornamental, L. nobilis is often trimmed into topiary shapes, and the trunks can be trained into braids and spirals. They also do very well in containers, making a handsome specimen for the patio, or simply to keep nearby as a kitchen herb.

And their beautiful glossy leaves make a handsome, long-lasting addition to bouquets of cut flowers and seasonal arrangements like Christmas wreaths and swags.

Here’s what we’re looking at in this article:

The Crown of Victory

Steeped in history and myth, wreaths of L. nobilis have been used to symbolize victory, personal achievement, and social status since antiquity.

As far back as 776 BC, ancient Greeks used the leaves to crown the victors of athletic competitions, the precursors of the modern Olympic games.

This idea carried into the Roman era, when emperors wore a wreath like a crown to denote their divine lineage.

And during the Renaissance, after doctors completed their final examinations, they were adorned with berries and branches of bay – from which we get the word “baccalaureate.”

Care and Cultivation

Sweet bay is hardy to Zone 8, enjoys a full-sun location, and should be planted in spring while still semi-dormant.

Use a soil richly amended with organic compost or well-rotted manure, adding extra grit to improve drainage and plant stability. Use a ratio of one part sand or extra-fine crushed gravel to six parts enriched soil.

For container growth, ensure plenty of drainage material is laid down before planting. Water moderately and avoid soggy roots, which can cause permanent damage.

Repot every 2-3 years, gently trimming away approximately one-third of the roots and removing the top two inches of soil. Replant in a fresh mix of amended soil and replace the top layer with mature compost.

Photo by Lorna Kring.

If your region has regular freeze cycles, protect the roots by wrapping the container with bubble wrap until spring.

Fertilize containers every two weeks from spring until August using an all-purpose fertilizer, or monthly for in-ground plants.

For large specimens, provide protection from high winds, which can cause weak limbs to break.

And in areas with harsh winters, plant in containers and bring indoors to a bright, cool room or tuck into a sheltered spot, covering with burlap to protect from prolonged freezing temperatures.

Pruning and Training

Pruning requirements depend on whether your bay has been trained as a topiary, grown as a shrub, or allowed to mature into a full-sized tree.

For all sizes, prune out any dead and damaged leaves or branches in the spring. Mature, full-grown trees can be pruned hard, but re-growth is slow – carry out hard pruning over two or three years to maintain some greenery while the new growth forms.

Shape by trimming above leaf nodes. Photo by Lorna Kring.

For those you’d like to maintain as more manageable shrubs, cut back to lower leaves or buds as desired, and trim away any low-trunk branches and suckers.

Topiary-trained specimens are trimmed in the summer to promote dense growth. Prune the current year’s growth back to leaf nodes that face in the direction of desired growth, maintaining balance and a harmonious shape.

Trim in summer for dense growth. Photo by Lorna Kring.

With regular clipping and training when the tree is young, the dark green foliage and stems can be sculpted into a variety of formal shapes to make an excellent patio or garden accent.

Propagation

Bay can be propagated in a few ways:

In fall, collect the seed-bearing drupes and remove the fleshy outer cases. Sow into small containers of light, loamy soil and place in a sheltered location or a cold frame until the second spring, when they can be planted out.

Softwood cuttings can be taken in late spring or early summer, as can semi-ripe cuttings in late summer. Sow and shelter as for seeds, planting out in their second year.

Plant Facts

  • Protects nearby plants from moths and unfriendly insects.
  • Dried leaves can be placed in canisters of rice or other grains to repel bugs.
  • Leaves can be used to produce a light green dye.
  • Wood can be added to grills and smokers for a sweet, smoky flavor.

In the Kitchen

An essential ingredient in a traditional bouquet garni herb mixture, bay leaves are a well-known kitchen ingredient. Leaves can be used dried, fresh, or frozen to season fish, meat, poultry, sauces, soups, stews, grains, and roasted vegetables.

A kitchen must have. Photo by Lorna Kring.

Dried, they’re best suited for use in slow-cooked dishes. Fresh or frozen, they can be used to add subtle flavor to cretons, fish, pates, poaching liquids, risottos, and sausages.

Leaves can be harvested at any time throughout the year, but the flavor will be best in summer – and large, mature leaves have more flavor and fragrance than tender new growth.

Where to Buy

For the home garden, there are only a few true bay cultivars to choose from:

L. nobilis is the most popular, commonly cultivated for culinary and ornamental purposes.

L. nobilis ‘Aurea’ has a golden-yellow foliage. And L. nobilis f. angustifolia is known as willow-leaved laurel for its thin leaves.

L. Nobilis 2-Pack

You can pick up L. nobilis at your favorite garden center, or purchase a two-pack of four-inch pots online, available from 9GreenBox via Walmart.

Pests and Problems

Hardy and easy to care for, bay laurel is largely disease and pest-free, with only a few easily remedied problems.

Leaf spot is most often caused by overwatering and allowing the roots to sit in water.

Ensure containers have a thick layer of drainage material at the bottom of the pot, and enough drainage holes for excess water to easily flow through.

In the ground, improve drainage by amending the soil with sand or extra-fine crushed rock.

If spots persist despite good drainage, chances are the soil has become depleted of nutrients. Repot in the spring using plenty of rich, organic compost.

Yellow leaves occur in small numbers each year as new growth occurs, and are shed naturally.

Yellowing can also occur in containers,and the problem is usually caused by a nutrient deficiency, root damage caused by soggy soil, or cold weather damage.

Apply a general-purpose fertilizer to containers every two weeks until August to improve nutrient content of the soil, always ensure they have adequate drainage, and prune damaged wood in spring.

Attractive and Practical

Attractive in garden beds or containers, bay laurel is a wonderfully versatile tree that adds visual interest to the landscape all year long – and it will make a delicious addition to your cooking!

Train plants while they’re young for topiary specimens, or simply prune to maintain a manageable shape. For cooking, harvest leaves at any time, but keep in mind that they’re most flavorful in summer.

Use sprigs in floral arrangements. Photo by Lorna Kring.

And remember, for years of healthy growth, good drainage is a must, and container specimens need to be repotted every 2-3 years. Aside from that, they’re pretty much self-reliant!

If you have any questions about L. nobilis, drop us a line in the comments below. And if you’d like more ideas about cooking with bay, – it has all the info you need.

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Photos by Lorna Kring © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photo via 9GreenBox. Uncredited photos: .

About Lorna Kring

A writer, artist, and entrepreneur, Lorna is also a long-time gardener who got hooked on organic and natural gardening methods at an early age. These days, her vegetable garden is smaller to make room for decorative landscapes filled with color, fragrance, art, and hidden treasures. Cultivating and designing the ideal garden spot is one of her favorite activities – especially for gathering with family and friends for good times and good food (straight from the garden, of course)!

Key to Common Bay Trees of Florida1

Lynn Proenza and Michael Andreu2

Introduction

Bay trees in Florida can be difficult to distinguish because their leaves all look alike at first glance. The leaves of bays are all simple, large, elliptical, and evergreen. In addition, several bay species grow in overlapping ranges and habitats. Many times two or more different species of bay will be found growing right next to one other.

One simple way to distinguish these woody plants is by focusing on their distinctive flowers and fruits. However, these features are not present throughout the year, so it is helpful to learn about other bay characteristics in order to help you decide which species you are looking at in every season of the year. Fortunately, each bay species has at least one characteristic that makes it distinguishable from similar trees of other species. In some cases, site, or where the plant is found on the landscape, can be helpful. For instance, Magnolia grandiflora (southern magnolia, bull bay) and Persea borbonia (red bay) are more commonly found in uplands, whereas Gordonia lasianthus (loblolly bay), Magnolia virginiana (sweetbay), and Persea palustris (swamp bay) are typically wetland dwellers. Morphological features can also be of use. For example, M. virginiana and P. borbonia have glaucous (bluish-gray) lower leaf surfaces, but the others do not. The difference between these two species is the stipule scars that completely surround the twig in M. virginiana. Once you learn the key features or group of features that are characteristic to a species, identification is relatively easy.

Florida contains many different plant communities (habitats) in which bay species occur. Descriptions of these natural plant communities are found in the Guide to the Natural Communities of Florida, 2010 edition, created by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI).

This fact sheet was produced to help in the identification of common bay trees found in Florida by using the dichotomous key below. This key focuses on those features that are present year round. Following the key, a basic description, along with photographs, of each species is given to help with the identification process.

The species included in this fact sheet are:

  • Gordonia lasianthus; loblolly bay

  • Magnolia grandiflora; southern magnolia, bull bay

  • Magnolia virginiana; sweetbay

  • Persea borbonia; red bay

  • Persea palustris; swamp bay

Key

Table 1.

Key

1a Stipular scars encircle the twig

2a Leaves large, thick, leathery; underside of leaves sometimes with rusty pubescence especially on younger growth; not fragrant when crushed

2. Magnolia grandiflora

2b Leaves thin; underside of leaves glaucous; fragrant when crushed

3. Magnolia virginiana

1b Stipular scars, if any, do not encircle the twig

3a Leaf margins serrated from apex to base. Leaves not aromatic when crushed

1. Gordonia lasianthus

3b Leaf margins entire; leaves aromatic when crushed; often covered with insect galls

4a Lower leaf surfaces with shaggy brown pubescence, especially along principle veins

5. Persea palustris

4b Lower leaf surfaces glaucous with gold pubescence (magnification required)

4. Persea borbonia

Plant Descriptions

1. Gordonia lasianthus; Loblolly Bay

Habitat type: Wetlands, bay swamps, bogs.

Form: Evergreen, although shedding of some leaves during fall and winter is common. Small to medium tree up to 20 m tall.

Bark and twigs: Bark narrowly furrowed, ridges flat, thick, gray to dark gray.

Leaves: Alternate. Up to 16 cm long, 5 cm wide. Glabrous upper surface, dull green lower surface. Margins serrated. Some leaves turn red in fall and winter before dropping off.

Flowers: Late spring to summer. White, cup-shaped, 5-petaled to 8 cm in diameter, stalks to 8 cm long. Many yellow stamens.

Fruit: Woody capsule to 1.5 cm long with 4–8 winged seeds up to 1 cm long, matures in early fall.

Distinguishing characteristics: The bark has narrow, furrowed ridges that are flat. The margins are serrated, whereas the margins on other bay trees are entire.

Figure 4.

The flower of Gordonia lasianthus is cup-shaped and 5-petaled.

Credit:

Lynn Proenza

2. Magnolia grandiflora; Southern Magnolia, Bull Bay

Habitat type: Well-drained upland woodlands, bluffs, coastal hammocks, mesic woodlands, ravines.

Form: Evergreen. Medium to large tree that typically grows 25 to 30 m tall but occasionally can reach up to 40 m tall.

Bark and twigs: Bark smooth when young; mature trees have large, scaly gray plates. Twigs with rusty pubescence on newer growth that turns darker brown and sloughs with age. Stipular scars evident and encircle the twig.

Leaves: Alternate. Leathery and thick up to 30 cm long, 10 cm wide. Upper surface waxy, glabrous, shiny, and dark green. Lower surface sometimes with dense rusty pubescence, sloughing with age, otherwise paler green and glabrous. Horticultural varieties are bred to have a darker green upper leaf surface and more pronounced rusty pubescent lower leaf surface than you will see in naturally occurring trees (Figure 9).

Flowers: Spring to summer. White, fragrant, saucer-shaped, large, to 20 cm in diameter.

Fruit: An aggregate of follicles that together appear cone-like. To 10 cm long, turning reddish brown with age. Pubescent, with shiny red seeds attached by a thin, hair-like fiber. Appearing in late summer.

Distinguishing characteristics: Stipule scars completely encircle the twig, a characteristic for all species in the Magnoliaceae family. The leaves of Magnolia grandiflora are thick and leathery, whereas Magnolia virginiana leaves are thin, papery, and fragrant. The lower leaf surface of Magnolia grandiflora is sometimes rusty pubescent or green and glabrous, whereas the lower leaf surface of Magnolia virginiana is glaucous.

Figure 5.

The leaves of Magnolia grandiflora are shiny and glabrous on the upper surface, and have varying amounts of rusty pubescence on the lower surface.

Credit:

Lynn Proenza

Figure 6.

Stipule scars (appearing as white lines on this twig) surround the twigs of both Magnolia species covered in this fact sheet

Credit:

Lynn Proenza

Figure 7.

The flowers on Magnolia grandiflora are large, white, fragrant, and very showy.

Credit:

Lynn Proenza

Figure 8.

Magnolia grandiflora fruit is large, pubescent, and cone-like with shiny red seeds.

Credit:

Lynn Proenza

Figure 9.

The leaf characteristics for the horticultural varieties of Magnolia grandiflora are more pronounced than leaf characteristics for naturally occurring trees.

Credit:

Lynn Proenza

3. Magnolia virginiana; Sweetbay

Habitat type: Wetlands, bay swamps, creek bottoms, bogs, wet flatwoods.

Form: Evergreen. Medium to large tree to about 30 m tall.

Bark and twigs: Smooth, dark gray bark. Twigs with silvery pubescence on newer growth, sloughing with age. Stipular scars evident and encircle the twig.

Leaves: Alternate. Up to 15 cm long, 6 cm wide. Aromatic when crushed. Upper surface dull green and glabrous. Lower surface glaucous with silky pubescence.

Flowers: Summer to fall. White, to 7 cm in diameter, showy, fragrant. Similar to Magnolia grandiflora (see Figure 7).

Fruit: An aggregate of follicles that together appear cone-like. To 5 cm long. Glabrous, turning reddish brown with age. Matures in late summer. Shiny red seeds attached by a thin, hair-like fiber. Similar to Magnolia grandiflora (see Figure 8).

Distinguishing characteristics: Stipule scars completely encircle the twig, a characteristic for all species in the Magnoliaceae family. The leaves of Magnolia virginiana are aromatic when crushed and are thin and papery, whereas Magnolia grandiflora are thick and leathery. The lower leaf surface of Magnolia virginiana is glaucous, whereas the lower leaf surface of Magnolia grandiflora is sometimes rusty pubescent or paler green and glabrous.

Figure 10.

The lower surface of the leaf of Magnolia virginiana is glaucous.

Credit:

Lynn Proenza

4. Persea borbonia; Red Bay

Habitat type: Xeric to mesic woodlands, scrub.

Form: Evergreen. Small to medium tree to 20 m tall.

Bark and twigs: Bark fissured, dark reddish-brown. Twigs with gold pubescence.

Leaves: Alternate. Up to 15 cm long, 6 cm wide. Upper surface glabrous, lower surface glaucous, gold pubescence is appressed (the tiny hairs grow very close to the surface of the leaf). Magnification is required to see pubescence. Aromatic when crushed. Often deformed by leaf gall insects.

Flowers: Spring to summer. Greenish, small clusters on long stalk, borne in axils of leaves.

Fruit: Drupe. Round, dark blue to black when mature in fall.

Distinguishing characteristics: The leaves of this species are aromatic when they are crushed, which is characteristic of the Lauraceae family. Persea palustris is also aromatic but has shaggy brown pubescence on the lower surface of the leaves and twigs, whereas Persea borbonia has a glaucous lower surface.

Note: Persea borbonia is currently experiencing a decrease in abundance due to a non-native Asian ambrosia beetle which causes laurel wilt disease; in sites where laurel wilt disease infestation is severe, you will likely see only dead trees. The wilted leaves of Persea borbonia usually persist on the tree after it dies (Figure 13).

Figure 11.

The lower surface of the leaf on Persea borbonia is glaucous with some gold pubescence, and the upper surface is glossy.

Credit:

Lynn Proenza

Figure 12.

This photo shows both older (left) and younger (right) bark of Persea borbonia.

Credit:

Lynn Proenza

Figure 13.

Persea borbonia is now typically found dead due to the non-native Asian ambrosia beetle.

Credit:

Lynn Proenza

5. Persea palustris; Swamp Bay

Habitat type: Wetlands, swamps, wet pinewoods, maritime forests, savannas, marshes.

Form: Evergreen. Small tree to 12 m tall.

Bark and twigs: Bark fissured, brown. Twigs with dense pubescence sloughing with age, then turning dark brown.

Leaves: Alternate. Up to 20 cm long, 5 cm wide. Upper surface with some pubescence when young, sloughing with age. Lower surface with shaggy brown pubescence, especially along principle veins, which can feel fuzzy to the touch. Petioles are also pubescent. Aromatic when crushed. Often deformed by leaf gall insects.

Flowers: Spring to summer. Greenish-white, small clusters on long stalks, borne in leaf axils.

Fruit: Drupe. Oblong to 1 cm long. Dark-blue to black when mature in fall.

Distinguishing characteristics: The leaves of this species are aromatic when they are crushed, which is characteristic of the Lauraceae family. Persea borbonia is also aromatic, but it has a glaucous coating on the lower surface of the leaves, whereas Persea palustris has shaggy brown pubescence on the lower surface of the leaves and twigs.

Figure 15.

Younger twigs of Persea palustris are covered in brown, dense hairs.

Credit:

Lynn Proenza

References and Additional Resources

Godfrey, Robert K. 1988. Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Northern Florida and Adjacent Georgia and Alabama. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.

Hall, David W. 1993. Illustrated Plants of Florida and the Coastal Plain. Maupin House, Gainesville, Florida.

Nelson, Gil. 1994. The Trees of Florida. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press Inc.

Footnotes

This document is FOR311, one of a series of the School of Forest Resources and Conservation Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date March 2013. Reviewed October 2019. Visit the EDIS website at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu for the currently supported version of this publication.

Lynn Proenza, graduate student; and Michael Andreu, associate professor; School of Forest Resources and Conservation; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension office.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.

Bay tree (Laurus nobilis) can be a fantastic addition to your home or garden.

Not only is bay an evergreen that will look good all year round, it also provides an edible yield for your garden.

The leaves can be used as a flavoring herb in a range of recipes and can also be utilised in many other useful ways.

Choosing A Bay Tree Variety For Your Garden

Bay is usually purchased as small shrubs or small trees from a garden center or plant nursery. While it can be propagated from seed this can be a time-consuming process.

Laurus nobilis is the most common cultivar, also often referred to as bay laurel. This is a bay tree which is used for culinary purposes. There are also another few bay varieties that you might encounter.

The first of these is Laurus nobilis ‘Aurea’ – an ornamental variant with golden-yellow leaves. The second is Laurus nobilis ‘Undulata’, which has wavy edged leaves. A third type is willow-leaved laurel, Laurus nobilis f. angustifolia. This one has thinner leaves, but these are still edible.

Is a Bay Tree the Right Choice For You?

Have You Got the Right Temperatures for Bay?

Bay can be a good choice for many gardens and situations. But it is important to make sure that a bay tree is the right choice for where you live.

They are generally hardy down to -5 degrees C. (23 degrees F.) but can withstand somewhat colder temperatures if they are placed in a sheltered position. If you live in a particularly cold winter area, then bay could be more difficult to grow. However, they will generally grow well in US hardiness zones 5-9.

Is Your Garden Prone to Waterlogging?

Another thing to bear in mind is that bay is rather intolerant of waterlogging. Bay can be grown in a range of soil types as long as they do not get waterlogged.

If grown in the ground it will require a well-drained soil. It can also be damaged by winter winds, and so if it will be exposed to these, should be grown in a sheltered spot.

Will Bay Like Your Soil?

Bay thrives in slightly acidic soil with a pH similar to that preferred by other Mediterranean herbs. If your soil is particularly alkaline in nature, you may find it easier to grow bay in containers rather than in the ground.

Do You Have Space for Bay?

Unlike most other herbs, bay will grow to create a small tree. It grows slowly, but can reach an eventual size of around 39ft x 32ft (12m x 10m), so if you plan to leave it unpruned and unchecked, this is worth bearing in mind when considering it for your garden.

Where to Grow Bay Trees in Your Garden

If the climate and soil conditions in your garden are suitable for growing a bay tree, then the next thing to consider is where in your garden your specimens should be placed.

Bay can be used as an individual specimen shrub or small tree, pruned to create topiary or hedging, or grown in containers.

You should choose a spot which is in full sun or dappled/partial shade, avoiding, of course, any particularly exposed areas, frost pockets, or areas prone to waterlogging.

Since you will be using bay in the kitchen, it may be helpful to have it close to your kitchen, where you can easily pick a leaf or two when required.

When & How To Plant A Bay Tree in Your Garden

Bay saplings or young plants are best planted out in the fall, or early spring, so they have a chance to become established before the heat of the summer.

If you are planting your bay tree in the ground, you should:

  • Prepare the planting areas – adding organic matter to improve the drainage in heavy soils, or to improve moisture retention in sandy, very free-draining ones.
  • Dig a hole that is as deep as the root ball on your bay tree and around twice as wide, to allow the roots to spread out.
  • Place the bay upright in this hole, and gently fill in and tamp the soil around it, watering thoroughly though not excessively.
  • Add a light mulch around your bay tree to help regulate soil moisture and temperature and discourage weeds which could complete with the young plant, though avoid heavy mulches that could hold too much water around the bay tree.

Growing Bay in Containers

If the conditions are not ideal for in-ground growing in your garden, bay trees can also thrive when grown in containers. Here are a few tips to help you successfully grow a bay tree in a container:

  • Use a free-draining medium in your container, adding grit to improve drainage.
  • Water only moderately, taking care not to overwater.
  • Use an organic liquid feed to replenish fertility over the late spring and summer.
  • Replenish compost and tease off around a third of the roots, or re-pot your bay every couple of years.
  • Protect your bay tree with fleece, or bring it under cover if temperatures fall below -5 degrees C.(23 F.). You can also protect roots in container plants in cold weather by covering the pots with bubble wrap or another insulative material.

Creating Bay Topiary or Hedging

Bay Topiary

If you plan to create topiary, bay can be pruned and trained into a wide range of interesting shapes.

Typically, you can shape them as pyramids, balls or ‘lollipop’ standards, though some have also been ornately plaited or entwined in a spiral form, while others have created all sorts of animal or mythological forms from their bay trees.

Topiary trained bay trees are trimmed with sharp secateurs in the summer months. This helps to encourage a dense habit of growth, and to maintain the desired shape. New shoots should be pruned to a bud which faces in the direction in which you wish the growth to form.

Bay Hedging

Light summer pruning will also help to keep a bay hedge in shape. If planting a new bay hedge, how many plants you will need to purchase to create a solid hedge will depend on how you purchase them.

If you buy bare root bay trees in winter, these should be placed in a double row, with 4.5 -6 plants per metre, depending on their size. With root balled specimens, or pot grown bays, you will require around 2 – 3.5 plants per metre.

Pruning a Bay Shrub or a Bay Tree

If you are growing a bay shrub or bay tree as an individual specimen plant then usually only light summer pruning for shape and size will be required. Simply cut back to a lower leaf or flower bud if required to keep the shrub looking good.

A mature bay tree will not usually require much pruning, but can tolerate hard pruning if required. However, it will be slow to recover and generate new growth. It is better to renovate large, overgrown bays over two or three seasons, in the late spring or early summer.

Watering & Feeding Bay

As mentioned above, bay is intolerant of overwatering, and it is generally a little better to under water rather than overwatering. Like other Mediterranean plants, bay trees can cope relatively well with dry conditions, though of course they should not be left to dry out entirely.

Bay does not require particularly fertile soil and so it is also important not to over-feed your plant. A gentle, organic plant feed given every couple of weeks in the summer months, however, may be beneficial, especially for plants in containers.

Identifying Problems When Growing a Bay Tree

Yellow Leaves:

These are usually a sign of waterlogging or cold weather damage, though can also indicate a nutrient deficiency, especially in container grown bay trees.

Leaf Spots:

This usually indicates a problem with waterlogging or wet weather. Plants in containers can be more prone to this problem. It is often a sign that the compost has to be refreshed and the plant should be re-potted.

Peeling Bark/ Cracking on Lower Stems:

This is usually caused by harsh winter weather and while it looks rather bad, as long as the rest of the plant is growing normally, it should not be fatal and your bay tree should recover.

Brown Leaves:

This is another sign of environmental problems. Pay attention to drainage, watering and shelter and it may not mean the end of your bay tree.

Curled leaves with pale-yellow/ brown edges:

If the leaves curl over, looking unsightly and discoloured, look under the curled leaf edges for little grey-white insects. You may have a case of bay sucker. While unsightly, the good news is that the long term health of the plant is not usually affected. Pick off and dispose of affected leaves.

Scale insects:

The bay can be affected by soft or horse chestnut scale. These tiny insects can be seen on the underside of leaves or on stems. You may not have to do anything, as the growth of the bay may be unaffected. However, attracting or introducing predatory insects can help to redress the natural balance in your garden.

Parasitoid wasps are sometimes introduced as a biological control for soft scale.

How To Dry Bay Leaves

Leaves are best picked early in the morning to preserve their essential oil.

Once picked, place the bay leaves on paper towels so they aren’t touching each other. Place in a warm, dry, well ventilated room and leave for two weeks – turning once half way through. After two weeks, examine your bay leaves. If they are still dark green or soft in places, leave for another week.

Once you are sure your bay leaves are dry, store in a glass jar for using in the ways below.

You can speed up the drying process by drying bay leaves in a dehydrator.

How To Use Bay Leaves

Edible Uses for Bay Leaves

Bay laurel leaves are a crucial ingredient in French cuisine and part of a ‘bouquet garni’. They are used tied together with string along with other herbs in a range of soups, stews and other recipes before being removed at the end of cooking.

The leaves can be used fresh or dried. Dried leaves impart a stronger flavour but will lose their flavour if stored for more than one year.

Other Uses for Bay Leaves

Bay leaves also have a long history of use in herbal medicine, and are also used as a strewing herb, or as an insect repellent.

In your garden, it may also protect neighbouring plants from certain insects, and in store, it can protect other produce from weevils.

Of course, the leaves were also traditionally used to make laurel wreaths for emperors, generals and poets and can also simply be used in arrangements to add their pleasant fragrance to your home.

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