Laurus nobilis 'Saratoga'
Saratoga bay laurel or sweet bay
By Sara Malone, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Gardeners, particularly passionate ones, often shun the ‘easy keepers’, seeking out temperamental, hard to find plants that make gardening as challenging as possible. While it is indeed rewarding to succeed with the prima donnas, even the most ambitious gardener relishes a variety or two that can just be ignored and enjoyed. Thankfully, there is Laurus nobilis ‘Saratoga’, which we can plant with no worries about care, insects, disease or even lack of beauty. What makes ‘Saratoga’ such a winner is that it is a pretty tree, it stays relatively small, it is evergreen so provides year-round interest, it has a reasonably showy flower display, it’s leaves have culinary value and it is resistant to the insect problems experienced by straight Laurus nobilis. Indeed, ‘Saratoga’ has it all!
Laurus n. ‘Saratoga’ is generally thought to be a hybrid between Laurus nobilis, the laurel that figures in Greek, Roman and Biblical writings, and Laurus azorica, a related species. Neither of these laurels is of the same genus as the California native bay laurel (see why common names get confusing?), which is Umbellularia californica, although they are all members of the same family, Lauraceae. All do have leaves that may be used in cooking, although the flavors are slightly different.
‘Saratoga’ can be grown as a small tree or a large shrub – it tops out at about 20-25’ - and has glossy, oval leaves are olive green with a lighter underside and new growth has a red tinge. ‘Saratoga’ flowers in late winter/early spring with a generous display of small, pale yellow flowers. It grows in full sun or part shade, requires only occasional water once established and is reasonably tolerant of poor soils, although it appreciates good drainage. More frequent irrigation will produce faster growth, as will slightly richer soil. ‘Saratoga’, happily, is resistant to laurel psyllid and soft scale, two insects that plague L. nobilis. In fact, in the dozen or so years that I have grown ‘Saratoga’, I have never experienced any insect or disease problem. ‘Saratoga’ works well with low-water California native or Mediterranean plantings or in a more eclectic landscape design or plant grouping.
‘Saratoga’ is reasonably easy to find locally – it is now on the list of approved street trees for many Bay Area municipalities due to how attractive and well behaved it is. The biggest challenge in selecting ‘Saratoga’ is finding the shape that you desire, as it is grown in three forms: shrub, multi-trunked tree and standard (a ‘standard’ tree form is one that has a single main stem). Of the three, I recommend the shrub if you are seeking a hedge and the multi-trunked tree if you want a specimen tree. The shrub makes a beautiful, dense hedge that can be trimmed as necessary to maintain both height and width. The multi-trunked tree is, to my eye, a more attractive specimen than the standard, if you are seeing a tree. It is more graceful and more interesting, although the forms selected for street trees are usually standards. If you do wish to purchase a standard, try to find one that has branches as low as possible. Once a standard has had its lower branches removed, its trunk will not thicken properly and the tree will have difficulty supporting its crown as it grows. You can remove the lower branches later, once the trunk has developed enough girth.
There are examples of L. ‘Saratoga’ all over the County – indeed, the entire Bay Area – but the nicest that I know is a grove of good-sized specimens at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma campus. If you find yourself in Petaluma, walk through the entry doors into the courtyard and see how attractive a mature planting of these trees can be. You may never go back to those demanding, hard to find specimens!