Reviving Sweet Bay ravaged by winter
We have had every weather possible this year in Suffolk. Snow in February, torrential rain in March and the highest temperatures for nearly 70 years in April. One plant that has suffered from the shock of it all is sweet bay. A lot of customers at the nursery have been asking how they can save plants which have lots of dead, brown leaves.
Laurus Nobilis, or the Noble Laurel, is a relative of the glossy green leaved plant we see as a hedge but it has a wonderful heritage of its own. It is the sweet bay that we see on Roman and Greek crowns and garlands for victorious athletes, and it is associated with the intellectual side of life. The word laurel within ‘Baccalaureate’ was used to describe outstanding poets, hence ‘poet laureate’. It was said that if someone slept with laurel under their pillow they would become a marvellous philosopher or orator, and laurels were awarded to scholars. Letters announcing victory would be wrapped in bay leaves.
This history gives away the plant’s Mediterranean origins. So, we need to consider what type of habitat it would have sprung from when we care for it in our gardens and in containers. The soil where it naturally grows would have been dry and stony. The climate would be hot in summer and rarely below freezing in winter, a far cry from our cold, wet weather this year.
Never fear! With a little tender, loving care your laurel can be revived. Late spring/early summer is the best time to prune, so snip off any brown leaves, taking the stems back to a bud. If it was in a pot during torrential rain the plant may have struggled, so I recommend repotting. Take as much of the old compost off the roots as possible and re-pot using a multipurpose compost, preferably not peat which holds moisture and is not environmentally friendly. The soil needs to be free draining so add plenty of grit. I suggest a slow release fertiliser sprinkled on the top. Whenever I prune a bay I keep the leaves, a couple in my pocket and others in a bowl in the house. I love the fresh, sweet aroma. And if you enjoy cooking you can put the leaves to good use in the kitchen too.