It’s tough to find an herb with a richer mythological history than bay. Originally from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, the plant can be grown virtually anywhere. While it reaches a stately 60 feet tall in its native lands, the bay tree (Laurus nobilis) is content to be grown in a container as a long-lived houseplant. Alternatively, in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 8 to 11, this compact evergreen with glossy, dark green leaves can be a lovely addition to the low-water landscape.
Laurus nobilisis is derived from the Latin laurus, meaning to laud or praise, and nobilis, means noble or renowned. The tale of how it came to be notable and praiseworthy goes back to ancient Greece.
As Ovid recounts, the laurel tree was created from the body of the beautiful nymph Daphne. In early Greece, a suite of athletic competitions was held annually to honor Apollo. The prize for each of these competitions was a crowning wreath of bay laurel. Roman culture embraced the laurel as a symbol of victory. To this day in Greece, daphne is the common name for the bay tree, and boughs of bay are a part of Greece’s national emblem.
Other common names for bay include laurel, bay laurel, sweet bay, and Grecian laurel. The Lauraceae plant family also includes cinnamon, sassafras, avocado, and lindera, the spicebush.
A native of the dry, rocky slopes of Greece, bay is well adapted for life as a houseplant. It requires well-drained soil. A blend of one-half cactus mix and one-half potting soil works well, or add one part of sand to two parts of standard potting soil. Water regularly, allowing soil to dry for several days. Bay does not thrive in overly wet or excessively dry soil. Light must be bright. Summer vacations on a shady porch will keep it healthy.
If you live in Zones 8 to 11, you can use bay outdoors in your xeriscape garden. Plant in well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Water regularly to establish an extensive root system. Fertilize with general-purpose fertilizer in spring and summer. Bay is slow-growing, but once old enough (10 to 30 years), it will flower in spring, followed by small fruits that birds love.
Illustration by Elara Tanguy