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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Bay Laurel

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.

I had a potted Bay tree and it lived for several years, spending winters in my sunny kitchen window. One winter I discovered the entire tree had mysteriously died. I failed to notice until it was thoroughly dead because the leaves maintained their green color, much like what you buy in the spice aisle. I found no sign of disease or pests. I was afraid of overwatering during the winter months, and I think perhaps I went too far in the opposite direction and didn't water enough.

Several references I found state that although the Bay Laurel prefers well-drained soil, it needs a fair amount of moisture to stay healthy. Some sources even suggest avoiding terra cotta or other unglazed clay pottery as it dries out too fast for the Bay Laurel. My tree was in a big terra cotta pot. I recently purchased a new tree and this time around it will be planted in a glazed ceramic pot.

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. Dried leaves have a more intense flavor than fresh.

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.



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I've kept a potted bay laurel in northern Illinois for eight or so years, moving it to a lightly heated (40-45 degrees) but sunny porch each winter. Like you, I tried to avoid overwatering it during the winter, and, like you, I think I overdid it this year, because the tree essentially shut down in March, losing nearly all of its leaves in the process. I thought I had killed it (or very nearly did), but I decided to wait to see what happened because a handful of leaves near the base and on the tips still seemed healthy. After a couple of weeks, numerous buds appeared along the length of the main shoots, and each of these has developed into 2-3 inch long twigs. The tree looks a little odd. but it also appears to be rather robust? I suppose the moral of this story is that we shouldn't be too quick to give up on these plants.
by Jeff on Monday 5/26/2014

Hi Jeff, thanks for the comment. It sounds like you are a true gardener at heart. I agree that we need to "wait and see" a lot of times with plants. You never know what you might learn in the process.
by Jennifer Nelson (Schultz) on Friday 5/30/2014