Pretty and tasty bay laurel tree takes center stage inside


Although there’s a jungle of ginger and clambering passion flowers in our basement plant room these days, the place of honor under the lights is reserved for my bay laurel tree. Not only does it provide cooking material for our kitchen, but it’s the prettiest and maybe easiest plant to grow in our permanent collection.

Bay laurel (Lauras nobilis) is a standard ingredient in many Mediterranean cuisines, in addition to being useful in massage, aromatherapy and medications. The trees are evergreen with leathery, fragrant leaves and reach up to 30 feet at maturity. They tolerate almost any kind of soil if it is reasonably moist and well-drained, and take moderate shade to full sun in the garden. They’re hardy to zone 8. Bay flowers are small, greenish-yellow pom-poms that produce small, black fruits with single seeds. A tree produces only male or female blossoms, so more than one is necessary to produce fruit. Since bay laurel is very slow growing, it’s easy to grow in a pot in colder areas like ours.

I’ve grown bay laurel for more than 20 years — this is the third iteration of my tree since I simply start a new one from a cutting when the mother plant gets too large to bring indoors. I take the cutting from the first new growth in the early summer, and by autumn it has rooted and is ready to bring inside. The only pest I’ve had on my tree is scale. I regularly give it a bath with insecticidal soup to prevent infestation. Bay is rated as an excellent house plant by the Missouri Botanic Garden.

The bay in the basement now was about 6 feet tall at the end of the summer and is a multi-stem shrub rather than a single-trunk tree. That’s too big to comfortably haul down the basement stairs, so I cut it back to about 3 feet in height. That meant a flood of branches to use in autumn arrangements and to give to friends.

I didn’t bother drying any of the leaves for our kitchen since it’s convenient to pick what I need directly from the plant. Bay leaves twist as they dry if they aren’t pressed, but it takes several weeks for the thick leaves to begin to desiccate.

Although whole bay leaves are used to flavor long-simmering dishes like soups, stews and sauces, the berries and ground leaves are also edible. Oil extracted from the berries and wood has anti-fungal and anti-itch properties, too. It’s found in massage oils as well as in treatments for rashes and wounds.

The same bay leaves we use in the kitchen were symbolic of victory and holiness for both the Greek and Romans. Widely used for both athletic and military wreaths, Roman emperors following Augustus kept a sacred grove of the trees. Their branches provided the victory wreaths the emperors wore in processions and were thought to ensure the continuation of their line. The trees in the grove died shortly before the last Claudian emperor, Nero, was assassinated, so they may have been on to something.         

The related California bay is not edible and smoke from the wood may irritate the lungs. The wood of true bay is redolent of the herb but fine for smoking foods, especially fish. We’re going to give it a whirl on the old Weber with some apple wood and see. It may be the next great thing around here.


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