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The noble bay

Herb snips


D. McNally

Bay tree

Laurus nobilis is the botanical name for sweet bay or Grecian laurel. Laurus is the Latin word for bay tree and nobilis refers to renowned. The early Greeks weaved crowns of bay leaves called laurel wreaths to honor priests, kings, soldiers, scholars, and athletes. They were awarded to athletes at the first Olympics in 776 B.C. and again in 2004 in Greece. The term poet laureate is derived from the custom of presenting a crown of laurel leaves to the outstanding poet of the day. Bay is the symbol of honor and reward!

It can be grown as a tree or bush and has glossy, leathery, aromatic, dark green leaves. In warm climates it may produce tiny yellow flowers and dark berries and thrive outside. In Tehachapi bay is a tender, evergreen plant because it does not do well in frost and icy wind. However, Janice Salvador has a 20 foot, 20 year old tree that has grown outdoors with no special care. I grew one for several years in a large pot up against the south side of the house. I covered the whole plant including its roots with burlap each winter. I decided to put it in the ground a couple of years ago but it did not survive. Molly McNally has a 5 foot, 10 year old potted bay that grows inside a sun room. She soaks it once a week in summer and waters it every 2 to 3 weeks in winter. It is in regular potting soil which is replaced in small sections each year. The whole tree is trimmed back in the fall. In the spring she chops the young, soft leaves and puts them in her stir fried dishes. The three of us have had different experiences with laurus nobilis in Tehachapi. Are you up for the challenge?

Bay trees can be pruned to any desired size, and attractive ornamental shapes. If potted, use one big enough for the size of the bush you plan to maintain. Trim plant roots if they are bound and replenish the soil as needed. It does well in moderately rich, well drained soil in a sunny location. The individual leaves may be harvested and used fresh or dried. When drying, place a board on the leaves to prevent them from curling. They are said to be more potent when dried, but I have found the fresh leaves just as tasty and more aromatic.

Culinary bay is an essential ingredient in soups, stews, gravies, chowders, tomato sauce, fish boils, pickling brines and marinades. The strong, allspice and nutmeg snap is what gives these foods a savory tang. Sweet bay is a standard ingredient in any "professional chef's kitchen". This seems a good reason for us to include it in our pantries. The flavor intensifies with cooking so add it early to your recipes.

The traditional French "bouquet garni" is a combination of bay, parsley and thyme with bay the dominant ingredient. The fresh herbs are tied in bundles while dried, crushed herbs are secured in a cheesecloth bag CAUTION: The whole leaves should be removed from dishes when cooking is completed because cooked leaves are sharp enough to cut your mouth or throat. If your recipe calls for chopped leaves I suggest you remove and discard the midrib and use only supple leaves. I first saw this done in a cooking class in Italy. You can see that experience on my website under "Italy".

I have come across some unusual uses for bay leaves! A tea of peppermint leaves and one fresh bay leaf has a spicy-mint taste. Hot chocolate with a fresh bay leaf has the flavor of allspice. Add bay leaves to water when cooking pasta beans and rice and there is no need for salt. This is good for slashing sodium in your diet! A single bay leaf in your red wine vinegar or cider vinegar jar will enhance their flavor.

Medicinal uses have not been scientifically proven but some people use bay leaves for a tea to relieve stomach upsets. The liquid from infused leaves can be added to bath water for a soothing soak (see recipe). The "oil of bay" can be purchased and is used to soothe aches and pains. CAUTION: The external use of bay oil or ointment can cause dermatitis in sensitive persons. It is prudent to do a skin test in a small area before using it.

Crafting with bay branches and leaves is popular because they dry beautifully, and provide good support for live or dried plant arrangements. The leaves can be added whole or in pieces to potpourri for that allspice scent. Bay leaves have a reputation as an insect repellent. They are used in canisters of flour, cereal and beans to discourage bugs. Janice Salvador adds it to her cats litter box along with baking soda, cornstarch and cloves. She has no specific proportions. Anyone have that recipe?

Laurus nobilis deserves a place in every garden. It can be trimmed in topiary shapes such as globes, pyramids, and spirals. Its attractive growth habit adds a vertical aspect to herb gardens where many plants are low to the ground. Its usefulness in cooking and crafting enhances its allure. A special thanks to Janice Salvador and Molly McNally for sharing their endeavors with the noble bay.

Contact me through my Website at I would like to hear about your bay experiences.

Wishing you and your loved ones an herbally noble 2017!


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