733 Laurus nobilisCommon Names: bay laurel, bay, bay leaf, laurel, sweet bay Family: Lauraceae (laurel Family)
Bay laurel is a pyramid-shaped tree or large shrub with aromatic, evergreen leaves and shiny gray bark. It can reach 60 ft (18.3 m) in height in its native range, but generally is much smaller, 3-10 ft (0.9-3.1 m) tall. in culture. Bay laurel sometimes produces suckers from the base. The leaves are elliptic, 3-4 in (7.6-10.2 cm) long, rather thick and leathery, and shiny dark green. Clusters of small yellow flowers are produced in spring, followed, on the female plants, by shiny black or purple berries about 0.5 in (1.3 cm) long.
Several cultivars have been selected, including: 'Aurea', with yellowish young foliage; 'Angustifolia' (also called willow-leaf bay), with narrow lance-shaped leaves; and 'Undulata' with wavy leaf margins.
Bay laurel, Laurus nobilis, is native to the southern Mediterranean region. It is grown commercially for its aromatic leaves in Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, and Mexico.
CultureLight: Bay laurel grows best in partial shade. Moisture: Water when dry. Bay laurel thrives with frequent watering in rich, well-drained soil. Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 10. Propagation: Bay laurel seeds are slow to germinate and often rot before they do. Cuttings taken from semi-hard, green tip shoots in summer will root in 6-9 months if they don't rot first.
Where hardy, grow bay laurel in a woodland garden or as a specimen. Protect from cold winter winds. Bay laurel is an excellent shrub for hedges and a favorite for topiary sculpture because it responds very well to pruning. It can be trained as a standard or allowed to grow as a spreading shrub. In cooler regions, grow in a container and bring indoors in winter.
The popular culinary seasoning, bay leaf, is used extensively in French, Italian, Spanish and Creole cooking. It flavors soups, stews, shellfish boils, pickling brines, sauces, marinades, and poultry and fish dishes. Always remove the bay leaves before serving, because they are sharp and can cut the mouth and throat. French chefs place bay leaves, parsley and thyme in a little bundle called a bouquet garni that is removed after cooking. Pick bay leaves early in the day and dry quickly under weight so they won't curl. Store in an air-tight jar.
Bay laurel is the true laurel of Greek and Roman mythology. A poet laureate is an accomplished poet, and the Roman poet, Ovid, retold the story of the Greek nymph, Daphne, who was transformed into a laurel tree by her father, Peneus, so that she could avoid the amorous pursuit of the god, Apollo. (Cupid had shot an arrow into the fair maiden's heart so that she would not love Apollo.) Thereafter, Apollo wore a wreath of laurel to show his love for Daphne. Laurel has always symbolized victory and merit, and a baccalaureate (baca lauri, Latin for "laurel berry") still is a symbol of accomplishment. Bay laurel has been credited with magical properties, like protecting from witches, the devil and lightning.
The leaves and berries of bay laurel contain the essential oils eugenol, cineol and geraniol, which account for the distinctive spicy aroma. Infusions are reputed to soothe the stomach and relieve flatulence. An oil pressed from the berries was once a popular liniment for arthritis and sore muscles, and still is used in perfumes, candles and soaps.
In the US northwest, the leaves of California bay (Umbellularia californica) are substituted for bay leaves in recipes, and in the southeast, red bay (Persea borbonia) leaves are an acceptable substitute. In India, "bay leaf" refers to the cassia tree (Cinnamomum cassia). All three of these are in the laurel family. In the West Indies, "bay leaf" refers to the bay rum tree (Pimenta racemosa), in the Myrtaceae. Note that the unrelated mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), in the Ericaceae, has poisonous leaves.
Some people get an allergic reaction from contact with the foliage or the essential oils of bay laurel. Do not place bay leaves in your mouth - they can cut.
Steve Christman 3/3/00; updated 12/26/03, 2/24/05