Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Whether you call it a Bay Laurel, True Laurel, Sweet Bay, Laurel, or Bay Tree, they are all names for Laurus nobilis. This is the tree that is the source of Bay Leaves, commonly used to flavor soups and stews.
Honestly, I never gave much thought as to where Bay Leaves came from, until I saw a Bay tree on a trip to California a few years ago. I never thought about Bay Leaves coming from a Bay tree. I was shocked, probably because when someone talks about an herb, you generally think of a smallish plant that fits easily in the garden rather than a tree.
Fortunately, though Bay Laurel will naturally reach mature heights of over 50 feet, it is easily maintained at shorter heights through pruning. It is also very happy as a potted plant, as long as it has a sunny spot, well-drained soil, regular fertilization during the growing season, and a frost-free spot for the winter. So knowing this, it shouldn't come as a surprise that when I saw a small Bay tree for sale at a conference I recently attended, it came home with me.
I wondered what commentary my husband would have about my purchase, as he thinks we have too many plants. Any gardener knows this is impossible! He likes to cook, so I used this to my advantage, saying it really wasn't another plant, it was a source of fresh herbs for cooking. Either this worked or he has given up trying to reason with me, because he didn't object to my purchase.
The Bay Laurel is native to the Mediterranean region, and has been grown in other regions with similar climates since the 1600's, making it one of the oldest cultivated plants. It is an ancient tree, mentioned frequently in ancient Greek, Biblical, and even Chinese writings.
Ancient Greek myths associated the Bay Laurel with their god Apollo through his pursuit of the beautiful nymph Daphne. She did not love Apollo, and so prayed for her father, the river god Peneus, to turn her into a tree. According to the myth, he turned her into the Bay Laurel, and Apollo decided that since he could not have Daphne as his wife, he would decorate himself with wreaths made from her branches.
The ancient Greeks used a wreath of Bay Laurel, sometimes called the Laurel wreath, to crown the winners of the Pythian Games played in honor of the Greek god Apollo. These games were part of the Panhellenic Games, the ancient predecessor of our modern Olympic Games. Unlike the Olympic Games today, the Pythian Games included competitions in music and poetry.
Using wreaths of laurel to signify the winner is the origin of the modern term "laureate", meaning someone worthy of great honor or distinction, such as naming someone the "poet laureate". It is also the source of the term baccalaureate, which literally means "laurel berry", in reference to the small black fruits the tree produces.
The fruits are only produced on female Bay trees. Bay Laurel is dioecious, from the Greek meaning "two houses"–there are male and female individuals, but they are all Bay Laurels. The females produce female flowers, the males produce male flowers. Both flowers are a pale yellow-green and occur in pairs.
The leaves are leathery and evergreen. They produce several different essential oils that provide valuable flavor for cooking. The levels of oil present in the leaves are not constant, they appear to fluctuate based on season, with early and mid-summer being the time of peak production. The greenhouse owner I bought my plant from also pointed out that the young leaves will not have much flavor, but the older leaves will. Dried leaves have a more intense flavor than fresh.
Most of the time we use the leaves dried in cooking, and remove them before eating the dish we've prepared. I learned this at a rather young age when I was old enough to be trusted to make a simple batch of chili, and feeling like a creative chef, I opened my mom's spice cabinet and started adding my own flair to my family's dinner.
I found the Bay Leaves, and noticed they were whole, and without thinking broke them into tiny pieces and added them to the chili. My mom was not happy when she found out I did this, telling me that the dried Bay Leaves were sharp and could cut our throats or stomachs. I thought she was just being a worried mom, but have since found she was right.
I don't know of anyone that suffered serious injury from a Bay Leaf, but I have found it mentioned in books and other resources that Bay Leaves should not be eaten because there is risk of the edges remaining sharp throughout cooking, potentially harming someone that might accidentally consume the leaf.
Not all of what we call "Bay Leaf" in cooking is Laurus nobilis. There are at least three other species used in the same manner, though their flavor is different: California Bay Tree (Umbellularia californica), Indian Bay Tree (Cinnamomum tejpata) and Indonesian Bay Tree (Syzigium polyanthum).
There are other tree species called 'bay' or 'laurel' that are not suitable for cooking, and aren't even related to Laurus nobilis. Some, like Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) are actually poisonous to livestock. The leaves of Laurel Cherry (Prunus laurocerasus) are poisonous to humans. Never consume plants whose identity you are not sure of. Just because the common name sounds like the plant is edible does not mean it is.