A Lifetime Supply of Bay Leaves

flowering bay leaf plant (Laurus nobilis)

flowering bay leaf plant (Laurus nobilis)

This past month’s correspondence included two questions about herbs, one question about a tree for autumn color, and one question about care of container plants that get soaked in the rain.
Q: I would like to know if the garden plant known as sweet bay or Grecian laurel (Laurus nobilis) produces the same bay leaf we use for cooking. It seems to me that the leaves have a little difference in their shape.
– Sara Gonzalez
A: The garden variety and the cooking variety of this variously named plant are one and the same. The garland of leaves that victorious Greek athletes and Roman Caesars wore as a crown also came from this plant, which explains the origin of its species name: nobilis.
Bay leaves used for cooking are dehydrated and therefore smaller than those growing on your garden plants. Incidentally, sweet bay is quite versatile in the garden, being used as a 30- to 40-foot tall specimen tree, an 8- to 10-foot high, informal hedge, or a 3- to 4-foot low, formal hedge. It also makes an attractive container plant, whether outside on the patio or indoors. In the Valley, it grows best in morning sun and will definitely burn if given a hot, southwestern exposure. It has rather dense foliage and attracts scales if it is not thinned out on a regular basis. Even if you cook with bay leaves every other day, a single mature plant will provide a lifetime’s supply of leaves.
Q: I am an amateur cook and use a lot of basil. I buy a plant from a nursery that’s about 4 inches high, take it home and transplant it to a larger pot. It then grows very well, with large leaves and is very healthy. Then, suddenly the leaves get smaller and smaller. I cut the flowers off when they start to appear and keep the soil moist, but nothing seems to help. I like growing my own basil rather than buying it at the market. I really don’t know what to do to ensure that the plant grows well and produces large leaves like it’s supposed to.
– Kelly Combine
A: You should know that the popular cooking basil you describe is an annual plant. No matter how well you take care of it, it will not live for more than a year and, typically, will die about six months after planting.
You should also make sure your potting soil is not too water retentive. Store-bought potting soil is really designed for indoor plants; regular garden plants in general, and herbs in particular, need a sandier soil to grow their best. If you mix store-bought potting soil with washed, construction grade sand, you will create a soil mix better suited to basil.
Keep in mind that basil needs lots of sunlight to grow well. Just because basil is a tropical plant – and requires more water than tougher Mediterranean herbs such as thyme, rosemary and oregano – does not mean it will grow well in low light the way some tropicals are capable of doing.
Q: Why don’t we see more tulip trees planted considering the color they display in the fall?
– Stan Ellison
A: The tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), which is native to the eastern United States, is a relatively short-lived species in Southern California, so perhaps this would explain its lack of use in our gardens and landscapes. Still, it has quite unusual leaves and flowers and its leaves turn gold in the fall. The best place to view a row of these trees is on the western parkway of Canoga Avenue between Vanowen and Victory Boulevards in the West Valley.
Q: When the rains come, how can we protect our potted plants from drowning, short of moving them where they won’t get too much rain, or is this even a concern?
– Sue Maki
North Hollywood
A: The only way container plants can drown is through lack of drainage in their pots. It is best to have at least three triangularly spaced drainage holes in every flower pot or other container. However, there is one placement of containers that is problematic in heavy rain: when containers are placed directly under a roof line, a significant amount of soil may be splashed out of these containers when water cascades down into them, in the manner of a waterfall, from the roof above.
Actually, rain is good for container plants since it washes out or drains away fertilizer salts that build up in the soil over the course of the year. For this reason, some people even put their indoor plants outdoors, temperature permitting, during a good rain.
TIP OF THE WEEK: Although they may still be available in the nursery, it is best to put off planting impatiens and begonias until next spring. The succulent stems of these plants, when young, are easily broken in the rain. In addition, the cold weather that visits the Valley from December through February prevents the development of young impatiens and begonias that are planted in the garden during this time.

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