Learn Everything About Laurus nobilis (BAY)

Grecian bay is an herb to grow for greatness and glory – if not personally, at least in your garden!  We often think of herbs as small additions to the garden, but when planting Grecian bay, it is important to remember that unchecked and unpruned, this Mediterranean native will grow as tall as 40 ft.  But fear not, those of you with less space or gardening in containers, because bay is a wonderful container plant, so it’s easy to keep this fragrant and delicious herb growing in almost any size garden.

As with so many of our herbs, names are important.  The botanical name is Laurus nobilis, a member of the Lauraceae family, is commonly called Sweet bay, Grecian Bay, true bay, bay laurel, Turkish bay or Grecian laurel.  It is by far the superior plant for culinary use, with a warm earthy flavor excellent in sauces and soups.  Also in the same family is our California native tree Umbellaria californica, commonly called California bay or Oregon myrtle.  Although leaves of this species are packaged and sold by many large spice companies, the flavor is very strong, heavily scented in camphor, and actually contains constituents which should not be ingested in very large quantities.  Stick with the Mediterranean plant for cooking!

How did bay become a symbol of glory and greatness?  For the answer we have to look to Greek mythology, when Apollo, the Greek god of the sun fell in love with the maiden Daphne and pursued her.  Cupid had shot an arrow into Daphne however, that made her hate Apollo, so her father Peneus decided to change her into a laurel tree so that she wouldn’t be bothered anymore by her would be lover.  When Apollo discovered her, he fell to his knees in front of the tree, declared the laurel to be sacred.  From then on he wore a wreath of laurel in remembrance of his beloved Daphne.

Bay laurel is reputed to protect and give great powers to anyone who wears it.  Wreaths of bay were worn on the heads of scholars when they received honors, hence the name ‘Baccalaureate’, originating from the Latin “bacca”, a berry, and “laureus” or laurel. The British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1618-1654) proclaimed that a man standing near a bay tree could not be hurt by witches, the devil, thunder, or lightning.

With this much power, bay laurel has been prescribed for almost everything, from snakebites to rheumatism.  Its use in many foods is believed to help relieve flatulence and settle the stomach, and it is sometimes included in external preparations to reduce aches and pains in joints.  It can be soothing to the skin in bath water.  

Bay laurel is famous as an insect repellent, and branches and dried leaves are often placed in with clothing to keep moths away.  Likewise, bay is excellent to keep away moths in flour and rice, and so dried leaves are kept in the pantry to keep these insects ‘at bay’ (yes, that’s an herbal joke).

Grecian bay really shines in the kitchen, and here is where the plant can really shine.  The aromatic leaves of bay can be used fresh or dried, and it almost instinctive to add bay to tomato sauces, soups and stews, as well as many green vegetables.  Bay is also excellent with shellfish, game and pickles.  Any heavy meat dish or root vegetable can benefit from the use of bay.  The classic French herb blend ‘bouquet garni’ includes bay, and also parsley, peppercorn and thyme.  

Growing bay is easy, especially if you have the space for a tree.  But if you don’t have much space, don’t fret, because bay can easily grow in containers as well.  As a matter of fact, bay is often grown in large pots or half barrels in Europe and used as portable living walls to create temporary outdoor café space.  If planting in ground, amend the area at least twice the width of the pot size and twice the depth with compost to improve drainage.  Although established bay is drought tolerant, young bay will appreciate ‘average’ watering – deep watering once a week, for the first several months. A slow release fertilizer applied at time of planting and then applied early spring and mid summer after that is generally plenty for plants in ground. If you are planting in mid summer, a bit of shade may also be beneficial until the plant has a chance to get established, In containers be sure to use a high quality good draining soil, and in a pot with plenty of drainage holes. The pot should drain freely, so place it up off the ground and not in a saucer with standing water.  The pot should be fertilized monthly with an all purpose fertilizer. Plants prefer sun – plants in shade are prone to scale and white fly.

You can allow bay laurel to grow freely, but bay will also respond well to pruning and shaping.  As it begins to grow in, especially in containers, pruning and shaping will maintain a healthy appearance and keep those delicious leaves growing abundantly for your use.  Bay can be sheared heavily, but can be pinched back to keep the plant looking its best.  If starting young, plants can be maintained as topiary, single stem trees or multi-branched shrubs.  Because bay are evergreen with attractive shiny leaves, they are excellent landscape additions to your landscape.  They are slow growing until the root systems are established, but once the roots have settled in the plants will grow at a moderate rate.  

Bay trees are dioecious, meaning that male and female are on separate plants.  Both have small white blooms in the spring, but only if they are growing close enough to each other, within a hundred feet or so, will you get a female tree pollinated resulting in purplish black berries that can produce new trees.  This can be a bit messy, but if you want to produce your own bay trees, seed is easier than cuttings to produce new stock.  If you only have one tree in your vicinity, you won’t have to worry about any seed being produced.

Fresh leaves of bay can be used for cooking, which will be slightly stronger in flavor.  You can also cut off individual branches or leaves and air dry in the shade for 10 to 15 days, or dry in a dehydrator for 24-48 hours on low.  Dried leaves should be kept in a glass jar out of direct sun for up to 6 months.  For cooking, the leaves are generally removed before serving the dish, as the leaves are very leathery and do not easily break down with cooking or baking.

At the nursery we harvest our bay trees heavily in November and December to use in our wreath making classes. It is one of our favorite plants to use as greenery, fragrance and filler.  It looks great fresh and also dries well and will last for years in a wreath.  Its also fun to use it as part of a ‘soup wreath’ or culinary wreath or swag, that can be hung in the kitchen and clipped away at all winter long as I make my winter soups.