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2009 MHS Herb of the Year -
Bay Laurel

Bay Laurel Bay Laurel Cookbook

By MHS Member Bonnie Kulke

Bay (Laurus nobilis) is an herb that has had great significance for centuries. All through history it has been the symbol of glory and reward woven into victory wreaths. Kings, poets, athletes, and war heroes have been crowned with laurel to bestow honor.

Bay is a small tree or shrub growing to 25 feet as a tender perennial indoors. In its native Mediterranean area it may reach heights of 60 feet or more. The smooth bark of its branches is olive green when young darkening to reddish brown at maturity.

The leaves are shiny and grow alternate on short stalks 3-4 inches long with a prominent margin. The leathery dark green leaves are the part used for culinary purposes both fresh and dried.

The flowers are small, yellow and grow in little clusters followed by berries that become black in color. However bay grown in northern climates rarely flower. Laurus nobilis is available in several cultivated hybrids including “Aurea”, a golden bay as well as a speckled version called “Gold Dust”.

Growing requirements and Care
It is best grown from a young 6-8-inch starter plant purchased from a local nursery or garden center. Place in a 12-inch container with good drainage such as a ceramic or plastic pot. Often a terracotta pot draws the moisture out of the plant so rapidly that it is difficult to keep evenly moist when placed outside in summer.

Use a soil-less mix and fertilize with organic fertilizer like fish emulsion or sea kelp in spring and summer. Repotting need only be done every few years as bay grows slowly and can take being pot bound.

Outdoors, situate plant in slightly sheltered site to protect form strong wind and full sun, especially in spring when acclimating to the outside and in hottest summer. Bring inside before frost is even predicted, even a light frost will cause leaves to brown and dry.

Grow indoors in cool well-lit space with southern or eastern exposure. In winter, keep evenly moist and don’t allow root ball to dry out completely. Remove dead or dry leaves and dust or wipe with damp cloth to remove dust. Inspect regularly for spider mites or scale insects, which feed on the plant juices and disfigure the leaves. Pests are easily removed by hand, with a damp cloth or soapy water. Use insecticidal soap treatment only as last resort.

What's in a name?
Bay or laurel (Laurus nobilis) is not to be confused with California Bay (Umbellalaria californica), which is a shrub similar in aromatic foliage but toxic. Also, sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana) is commonly used in the southern states. Persea barbonia is red bay and many cooks see it as an adequate substitute when used fresh.

Newly popular Mexican Bay (Litsea glaucesens) is commonly used south of the border and tastes most similar to bay, Laurus nobilis. The oil of Pimenta acris is used for bay rum and is not edible.

The leaves of (Prunus Laurocerasus) or Cherry Laurel looks very much like laurus nobilis but is poisonous! For the real thing with no fears of toxicity or error insist on laurus nobilis, which means notable, renowned or glory from the Latin.

Culinary Guidelines
Bay or bay leaf is most often used in dried form, but if you have room to grow your own plant, the fresh leaves have a much more delightful taste and can be used in the same ways as dry. The most important thing to remember is to remove leaves from your dish after cooking and before serving. The sharp edges and brittleness make it a choking hazard.

Fresh whole leaves of bay can also be finally chopped after removing the main prominent margin running the length of the leaf. It’s easy to remove this tough part by folding the leaf in half vertically and cutting with a scissors the full length of the leaf, then chop finely with a sharp knife.

Harvest mature leaves rather than new growth, which is paler in color. Remove leaf gently close to stem at leaf axil to encourage and reveal new leaf bud. As with other herbs, allow 2-3 times as much fresh as dried called for in the recipe.

Preservation of whole leaves is to air dry in warm place and store away from heat and light. Bay may also be preserved in oil, vinegar, honey, sugar, or even salt. 

In the Kitchen
Bay has a somewhat nutmeg-like scent, and like parsley, marjoram, or lemon balm is a “liaison herb”. This means that bay partners very well with most any herb helping them to blend and not fight each other. It does not have an overwhelming strong flavor of its own, rather it adds complexity and interest to dishes.

Bay is great with lentils, beans, tomatoes, rice, meats and game. It adds wonderful flavor to light foods like seafood and mushrooms while its delightful fragrance is good with strong vegetables like cabbage, broccoli or cauliflower.

It is divine partnered with citrus or chocolate—useful with savory and sweet dishes. The most traditional use of bay leaves is to season and flavor soups, stews, pot roast, pickles, and shellfish boils.

Other Herbal Uses---Aromatic, Beauty and Household
Bay is a good hair conditioner and dandruff treatment using bay oil, alcohol, and mineral water. In a bath, it soothes the skin, or steep bay leaves in water or carrier oil for healing lotions.

To darken graying hair, make a decoction of sage, bay, marjoram, and wood betony. In perfumery, it is used extensively for fragrance. Dried bay leaves are a common ingredient in jar and simmering potpourris.

Bay laurel is a great focal point in a decorative pot for herb gardens or on porch or patio serving as a tall background plant for small containers grouped in front planted with herbs and bright flowers. The leaves make wonderful fresh and dry wreaths by themselves or mixed with other herbs and everlastings.

Crafting kitchen strings, fresh flower arrangements, bouquets, and posies take advantage of bay’s color, form and fragrance.

Active ingredient actions include excitant, narcotic, diaphoretic, and emetic. Oil of bay is used externally for sprains, bruises, for rheumatism, lower backaches, bothersome varicose veins, and other pains.

Bay oil ear drops ease pain. The oil has bacterial and fungicidal properties for skin rashes. A poultice of boiled bay leaves is said to relieve bronchitis and hacking coughs. There are some herbal claims that bay helps everything from preventing tooth decay to altitude sickness to promoting onset of menstruation.

History, Myth, and Legend
An early legend, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, tells of Apollo, sun god, who fell in love with the fair nymph, Daphne. She had been shot by Cupid’s arrow to reject his love and fought off his advances. Her father, Peneus changed her into the laurel tree to protect her. Apollo from then on called the laurel tree sacred and wore a laurel wreath on his head in remembrance of his love for Daphne.

Bay was thought to protect from storms and lightning. The story is told of Emperor Tiberias who could always be found under his bed with a laurel crown during thunderstorms. Culpepper also wrote that standing near a laurel tree, protected one from witches, devils as well as lightning.

Herbalist John Gerard suggested in his herbal writings that bay prevents “drunkenness” taken in wine and is also good against bites and stings of venomous beasts.

Finally legends suggest that bay with its rich, warm, inviting fragrance is an ingredient in love potions. Along with nutmeg, allspice, pepper, and basil, bay was used to prepare powerfully potent foods, drinks, and perfumes. Traditionally, at Valentine’s Day, women were advised to take two bay leaves sprinkled with rosewater and lay them on their bed pillow to insure dreams of their future love.

Whether growing bay laurel for cooking, decorating wreaths or enjoying its statuesque form in a pot, you’ll agree it is worth adding to your herbal collection!