Bay Laurel Herb Profile

Learn how to cook with bay laurel herb, plus get tips about growing bay laurel and fun facts about its history.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
January/February 1986
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This is Umbrellularia californica, the California bay variety.

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The bay laurel's many namesakes attest its status among trees. Rosebay, mountain laurel, bayberry, and laurel oak all have as their point of reference the dark green, aromatic leaf or dark blue berry of Laurus nobilis, the classical bay.

The History of Bay Laurel Herb

According to myth, Apollo declared laurel sacred after the nymph Daphne eluded his advances by becoming a laurel tree. Apollo's approbation no doubt led to the use of laurel in various ceremonies of state in classical antiquity. As the Sun God was believed to be the giver of victory, leaves of bay honored winners of wars and athletic games.

Eminent poets wore the laurel crown, flattered by their association with Apollo, the supreme songster. And the Oracle at Delphi, servant of Apollo, God of Prophecy, took her inspiration with a bay leaf clinched in her teeth. Even today, the laurel adorns the poet laureate and the baccalaureate, if in name only.

Cooking With Bay Leaves

Of course, it's now the culinary artist who's most likely to aspire to a crown of bay. Its flavor transcends cultural boundaries: Bay leaves are employed in English stews and Italian sauces, and contribute to the French bouquet garni. A marinade concocted with bay is particularly good for pork and venison, and bouillabaisse demands a leaf or two.

Dried bay leaves retain their pungency for a long time, so it isn't necessary to use them fresh from the tree. But don't assume that the leaves you pick from the shelves of your local grocery are necessarily those of Laurus nobilis. Much of the bay sold is from a related but quite distinct tree, Umbellularia californica, the California bay. There is some difference of opinion as to whether the leaf of this tree is a worthy substitute for that of the classical bay, but there is little disagreement that it is a more pungent one, and should be used accordingly. 

Other Uses for Bay Laurel

The fresh, sharp scent of bay has uses outside the kitchen, too. A potpourri of bay, or a branch cast on the fire, was thought to clean the air of contagion; some even believed it could protect against plague.

The odor of bay is also repellent to insects. The trees are generally free of pests and are even said to extend that resistance to nearby plants.

Growing Bay Laurel

In the Mediterranean countries where it is native, the true laurel is an evergreen which can grow to more than 50 feet. However, the tree is slowgrowing and tolerant of heavy pruning, so most cultivated laurels are much smaller.

If your climate doesn't allow you to grow citrus, your chances of overwintering laurel outside are not good. The tree can be grown in pots, however, and moved to a cool, light room in winter. Container-grown laurels were once more popular than they are now, and dignified the entrances of many European and American homes. Laurel seedlings can be kept for years in a small flower pot and overwintered on a cool window sill, supplying all the fragrant leaves you'll ever require.

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