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
Harvest and Use
Harvest bay leaves any time of year. The flavor and fragrance is strongest just as the plant begins to bloom. The leaves of indoor bay are more flavorful in the summer. Dried leaves remain potent for a year, after which they should be discarded. In cooking, bay is always used dried. There are several bitter-tasting compounds that are lost with drying. Leaves are usually used whole in recipes and removed prior to serving. Store bay in air-tight containers, out of direct light.
Bay has been used medicinally for centuries. It has a reputation for soothing the stomach and relieving flatulence.
Use bay leaves to create lovely and fragrant crafts, including herbal wreaths. Bay also repels flour weevils: Add several leaves in a muslin bag to flour canisters. Change to fresh leaves every 6 months.
With truly little care, you can have a shining bay tree to grace your home and table.
Varieties of Bay
There are dozens of Laurus nobilis varieties, but the nursery trade most commonly offers these four:
Willow-leaf bay, features long, slender leaves.
Golden bay, has new growth in a lovely golden color.
Crispa or Undulata
Characterized by leaves with undulate or wavy margins.
Offers leaves variegated or marked with gold.