The humble bay leaf — cultivated since the beginning of recorded history, used as a symbol of honor in Ancient Greek and Roman culture, and one of the most widely used culinary herbs in both Europe and North America. Living in a cold northern climate where bay laurel trees must be grown indoors, it took me two years to find one to add to my indoor garden, and (thankfully) it was one of the few plants that survived our recent move and continues to thrive with nothing but a sunny window for light!
This is the second post in our Spotlight on Herbs series.
Growing Bay Leaves
My little bay laurel tree is only about a year old, but it has grown steadily from the little two-leaf sapling it was when I bought it. Potted plants can be set outdoors in the warm summer months, and moved inside after first frost. If confined to a pot, they will only grow about 6 feet tall, which is plenty big enough for me. If you live in the right climate, you can plant the tree outside in a sunny, but protected, location and eventually have a tree that can reach 65 feet tall!
Tips for growing bay laurel in a pot:
- Use a good-quality, well-draining potting soil.
- Re-pot when the roots have filled the current pot. This plant doesn’t mind being in close quarters!
- Water well, then allow the soil to dry out between watering.
- You can begin to harvest leaves when the plant is a few years old.
Uses for Bay Leaf
Medicinal: Bay leaf has a long history of medicinal use, which leads to a confusing number of possible benefits and uses. However, there does seem to be a body of modern research showing that it may be beneficial to those with diabetes and heart disease. Other commonly listed benefits include being antibacterial and antifungal, an aid to digestive complaints, and beneficial for most aspects of women’s health.
- Create a bay-infused oil to rub on sore muscles, strains, or to help with arthritis. If you have never made an infused oil before, you'll find a very thorough description here.
- Brew some bay leaf tea to help relieve cough and congestion due to colds.
Household: Bay leaf is a natural, and effective, bug repellent.
- Slip leaves between the pages of books to repel silverfish.
- Slip a few leaves into food containers to repel moths and bugs from infesting your flours and grains.
Culinary: Bay leaves are full of iron, potassium, magnesium, calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
- They are wonderful flavor-enhancers in soups, stews, and stocks.
- Stuff them into chickens before roasting, or throw a few leaves around any kind of roast.
- They are also a beautiful compliment to bean and lentil dishes, and I have seen them turn up in many tomato sauce recipes as well.
Basically, if it is cooked in liquid, you can add a bay leaf. Just remember to pick them out before serving, as, even when cooked in liquid all day, they are still tough and fibrous to eat!
Note about “Poisonous Leaves”
A discussion about bay leaves would not be complete without mentioning poisonous leaves. Many of us were taught that we had to remove bay leaves after cooking due to the fact that they were “poisonous”. This is simply not true, since the leaves do not contain any poisonous compounds.
Good thing, since we allow them to simmer in our soups and stocks all day!
However, although they are not poisonous, ingesting whole leaves can have serious repercussions, as the hard sides of the leaves can actually scratch your throat, stomach, and intestines. Ouch!
It should also be mentioned that there are several laurel trees that are poisonous, and, as such, their leaves should not be consumed. Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) is what we commonly call “bay leaf” and is completely safe for eating.
In the dark of winter, this little plant on the windowsill — and the warm herb-y flavor floating across the kitchen from the stock pot — always makes me smile.
References and further reading:
- Herb Gardening in Five Seasons by Adelma Grenier Simmons
- Bay Leaf
- Growing Bay Leaf
- Growing Bay Laurel in a Pot
- Grow Your Own Bay Tree
- Bay Leaf Makes the Tummy Sing
What about you? How do you like to use bay leaves?
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