Bay (laurus nobilis)

The leathery, dark green leaves of this small Mediterranean tree symbolized success to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who wove its branches into crowns to honor scholars, poets, generals, and Olympic victors. Derived from the Latin laus, meaning “praise,” Laurus nobilis is still used to signify victory or achievement. Herbalists of the past used bay leaves and berries to treat various conditions — including hysteria, flatulence, and colic. Today, bay is most valued in the kitchen.


Plant profile

Common Names: Bay, Bay Laurel, Grecian Laurel, Sweet Bay, True Bay

Description: Dense pyramid-shaped evergreen shrub or tree, up to 50 feet tall; shiny, dark green, leathery leaves up to 3 inches long; umbels of inconspicuous flowers; dark purple berries

Hardiness: To Zone 8

Family: Lauraceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region and Asia Minor; widely cultivated

Culinary use

Dried bay leaves are very popular in French, Spanish, and Creole cuisine and are used to flavor poultry, stews, vegetables, and meat dishes. Bay is an ingredient in bouquet garni, a group of herbs (usually parsley, thyme, and bay) tied together or placed in a cheesecloth bag and used to flavor soups. Always remove bay leaves before eating; they have very sharp edges and, if swallowed, can injure your throat.

Medicinal use

Though bay is primarily a culinary herb, it is also used as a digestive tonic to stimulate appetite, increase the secretion of digestive juices, and settle your stomach. When used in cooking, bay leaves help break down foods, especially meats, making digestion easier. Liniments and salves containing essential oil of bay can be used externally to ease arthritis pain, sprains, and bruises.

Caution: Essential oil of bay may irritate the skin of sensitive individuals and should be applied only in dilute (approximately 2 percent) concentrations.

Other uses

An infusion of bay leaves can be added to bathwater. The fatty oil extracted from the fruits is used in some skin-care products, shampoos, and soaps.

How to grow it

Bay is an ideal container plant and can be easily pruned and maintained at a mature height of about 5 feet. Provide well-drained soil and full sun or partial shade, and shelter the plant from cold and frost. Propagate by taking semiripe cuttings, and plant them in fall. Bay leaves can be collected year-round and dried for future use. Flatten the drying leaves with a board or other object to prevent curling. Store them in an airtight container in a dark location.