When most people talk about bay trees, they are referring to Laurus nobilis, which is most often called bay laurel, and sometimes Grecian laurel, Turkish bay, or sweet bay (although there is a kind of magnolia which is also referred to as sweet bay). When purchasing fresh bay, it is crucial to be aware of another plant belonging to a different genus called California bay, Umbellularia californica. The leaves of this very large tree are similar but thinner, rounder on the tip, with a greyish tint, and a strong scent that smells like camphor.
In the US, leaves of California bay are often mistakenly sold as a culinary herb, but they must not be eaten, because not only do they taste wrong, they contain umbellulone, a dangerous toxin that causes headaches; in fact, according to the Royal Horticultural Society, one of the common names for California bay is “headache tree”. Bay leaf wreaths and other such crafts are frequently made from California bay. This is why know the Latin names of plants is important. If it claims to be a bay, but it isn’t some form of Laurus nobilis, don’t eat it.
Bay is native to the Mediterranean, and has been treasured since at least the time of the Ancient Greeks. When the Greek god Apollo attempted to seduce Daphne, a priestess of Gaia, Daphne called upon her goddess to help. Gaia responded by putting a bay tree in Daphne’s place (or turning Daphne into a bay tree, depending on which version of the myth you read). Daphne was the Greek word for the plant, and it was one of Apollo’s symbols. A crown of laurel leaves was an ancient symbol of status and victory. Laurel is also the basis of such words and phrases as baccalaureate, poet laureate, and “resting on his laurels”.
Laurus nobilis is a broadleaf evergreen that looks somewhat like a camellia bush with its shiny, deep green leaves. In mild climates, they’re borderline hardy, and can grow to ten feet (a little over 3m) or more outdoors, but in subtropical areas they can grow as high as sixty feet (a bit over 18m). In any event, one mature plant will provide more bay leaves than the typical cook or craftsperson could ever dream of using. In areas where rosemary can’t be wintered, the bay tree will also perish outside, but it can be kept as a potted plant and given shelter during the cold months. It is not unusual to hear of bay trees flourishing for twenty years or more when planted in the ground, and potted bay can last at least a decade if cared for properly. There are three varieties of bay laurel that are most readily available in the UK: Laurus nobilis, the standard bay tree, Laurus nobilis ‘Aurea’, which has yellow-flushed leaves, and Laurus nobilis f. angustifolia, which has leaves that resemble those of the willow tree.
Cooking with bay leaves
Historically, seasonings that come from trees are usually labelled as spices, but bay leaves are an exception, and identified as an herb even though they come from laurel trees. Many cooks think of bay leaves as a thing you put in soups, stews, and other simmering dishes, usually thrown in with other herbs like parley and thyme. However bay can stand quite well all by itself. While many herbs have a stronger flavour when they’re dried, bay is more potent when it’s fresh; in fact bay tastes better when fresh because much of its flavour is lost during the drying process, leaving behind something only vague and, when too many leaves are used, acrid and unpleasant. Fresh bay leaves will last for months in a resealable container in the vegetable crisper drawer in the refrigerator, so there’s really no reason to bother with drying them at all.
One excellent way to use fresh bay leaves is to stuff them under the skin of chicken, pheasant, or turkey before roasting. Loosen the skin of the bird, split the bay leaves, and insert eight or ten between skin and flesh, and then proceed to roast the bird. Fresh bay leaves can also be inserted into small openings cut into pork, veal, or lamb roasts before they’re put in the oven. Leaves can be placed between meat on kabobs, or the branches themselves can be used as skewers. Bay leaves are indispensible in any braise, stock, or stew, and are a crucial element in a bouquet garni. In any recipe calling for dried leaves, you can double the quantity of the fresh herb.
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Bay Tree Diseases & Problems
In Europe, bay leaves were used to flavour custards and other sweets long before vanilla beans were commonly available and to this day they are still frequently used in rice pudding. Bay leaves are also great for using as moulds to make chocolate leaves.
How to grow Bay Trees
Bay trees are infamously difficult to propagate both from cuttings or from seeds, and grow very slowly when young, so potted plants for sale in nurseries or garden centres are more expensive than other herbs and usually comparatively small. However, for most gardeners, the extra expense is worth it. If you live in a Mediterranean-esque climate, you can plant your tree directly in the ground. If you garden in H4 (USDA zone 8)(low to -10°C), your best bet is to grow the plant in a clay pot until it reaches about two feet (60.96 cm) in height, and forms woody stems that can successfully cope with cold weather. Until then, shelter it when the temperature dips into negative 6 territory. Keeping it in a pot for the first year or two will give you a chance to move it around and figure out the spot where it will thrive. Although bay trees like the sun, their leaves can burn if it’s too intense. Well-drained soil is an absolute must, but they like moist, fertile soil. Don’t ever allow the plant dry out completely. Once you plant the tree in the ground and it has established a good root system, it can endure some frost damage and still recover. Laurus nobilis grows at a rate of about 16 inches (roughly 40cm) per year.
If you live where the temperature is expected to drop below -12.22°C in the winter, you’ll have to plant your tree in a permanent container and bring it inside for the winter. Similar to the rosemary plant, bay will do best in an unheated greenhouse or near a partly open window with plenty of bright sunlight. As soon as evening temperatures stay above 0°C, gradually get it used to the outdoors again. Prune it back a little bit in the spring with your best pruning saw to encourage it to put out fresh new growth. Potted bay should be fed once a month with fish emulsion; if you wish, you can increase the feeding to twice a month in late winter and early spring, to encourage growth.
Whether your Laurus nobilis will be living in a pot temporarily or permanently, it is important to remember to pot it up in a container that is only a little bit bigger than the one it was in previously. If you discover a new shoot growing amongst the roots, cut it off and try your hand at rooting it separately. If you’re patient, you might get a new plant for your trouble.
Bay grown or overwintered indoors is highly susceptible to aphids, mealy bugs, and scale. Inspect your plants frequently, and expel any pests by hand and/or wash with insecticidal soap; spraying with rubbing alcohol can also help. Outdoor pests that can bother the plant are the bay sucker, horse chestnut scale, soft scale and tortrix moth. Other issues, such as leaves dropping, discoloured leaves; powdery mildew, leaf spot, etc. are due primarily to overwatering, under-watering, exposure to too much wind, or sunburn. Potted plants can also get a bit peaky if they aren’t fed regularly.
How to Prune Bay Trees
The best way to harvest individual bay leaves is to pull them off one by one with a sharp downward tug. There is a little growth tip where the leaf stem meets the branch that will form a new leaf or branch after the leaf is pulled. Only harvest leaves that have matured and turned leathery; the softer young leaves are not as flavourful. If you have a mature bay tree that needs pruning, harvest whole branches, shaping the plant as you wish with tree pruners or sometimes hedge shears can be used, but make sure you do that no later than the end of August, so that the plant has a chance to make some new growth by the time fall rolls around.
Speaking of pruning and shaping, bay is one of the plants that are considered suitable for topiary, the practice of training and pruning, trees and shrubs to create artificial shapes. Depending on what shape you want to create, you can either eyeball it, or use a cutting guide. For example, if you want your bay to look like a big triangle, wait until it’s about 2 feet (60.96 cm), clip it into shape by eye. The following year, you can prune it by eye, or tie three stakes together with some wire (think bean tepee), place it over the plant, and use that shape as your cutting guide. Many gardeners seem to like having bay trees in a lollipop shape. The way to achieve that is by cutting any branches off the main stem until that stem is at the height you desire. Once that happens, leave about six of the branches on the stem, but cut the main stem in order to stop the tree from growing any taller. Once each of those six branches, have little branches of their own, cut their tips, making sure you cut down to an inward-facing bud, because you want the thing to grown inward and make a ball. You’ll need to support the main stem over the years this is going on, because it will get top-heavy before the stem becomes a trunk. When creating topiary designs with bay, it’s best to do the pruning in April and August.