About thirty years ago when my children were very young, we visited my husband's family in the Gulf area of Texas and Louisiana. Sea food there is abundant and huge compared to that found in my area of the world, and his family knew how much I loved shrimp. It was there I discovered bay leaves and it was there that I learned all about gumbo. Not that I liked gumbo at first; it looked a lot like some of the soupy, lumpy mud pies I used to make, but I loved the eye-watering aroma of bay leaves that seasoned the gumbo. I learned to make it, too, from some of the very nicest Cajuns ever, and to this day I can make one of the best pots of gumbo in this part of Kentucky! Makes me hungry just thinking about it.
But we aren't talking about gumbo, we're talking about bay leaves; it's just difficult for me to separate the two. I have a natural curiosity about herbs and spices, leftover from my formative years at the hands of Aunt Bett and Granny Ninna; it's not unusual that I'd want to know all about bay.
Bay laurel, or sweet bay (Laurus nobilis), is the leaf from a tree in the laurel family. It's an evergreen that originated in the Mediterranean, and in its natural state can grow quite tall. Bay laurel has beautiful medium sized, glossy, green leaves, not unlike the look and feel of others in the laurel family, some of which grow in east Kentucky where I grew up. It differs though, in that it is not winter hardy in areas that experience freezing weather, and my mountain laurels are small, more like large shrubs. I was very familiar with mountain laurel, which grew and bloomed all over our mountains, and was one of those plants that Aunt Bett always told me to look but never touch. Those laurels are toxic, but the sweet bay laurel that I now cook with, is not.
Bay leaves have been around for a long time. The ancients considered them magic too, but for reasons unlike mine:
* The Greeks crowned their heroes with wreaths of bay leaves, representing victory and superior accomplishments. The word 'laureate' comes from this practice. Even today those crowned with a wreath of bay leaves are considered 'laureates'.
* In ancient times, bay leaves were burned to protect against infection, and later, particularly in the Middle Ages, the aroma of bay was believed to ward off the plague. In some cultures it was used to ward off evil.
* During the Elizabethan era they believed pinning bay leaves to your pillow on the eve of Saint Valentine's Day would give you the vision of your future spouse in a dream.
Medicinally, here are the facts about bay:
* Bay has many properties that make it useful for treating high blood sugar, migraine headaches, bacterial and fungal infections, and gastric ulcers.
* Bay oil is used in liniments for bruises and strains.
* Bay leaf has also been shown to help the body process insulin more efficiently and to reduce the effect of stomach ulcers.
And then there is another more magical property that might surprise you:
* A few bay leaves and a sprig or two of rosemary scattered on the shelves where you store grain or flour can be used to prevent insect infestations. Specific insects that are affected include silverfish, meal moths, roaches and flies. Magic, for sure!
Now let's talk about bay as a nutritional seasoning:
* This food is very low in cholesterol and sodium. It is also a good source of solate, and a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamins A, C, and B6, calcium, iron, potassium and manganese.
* Bay leaf is a favorite in cooking. It is commonly used whole in stews, sauces and soups. I especially love it in gumbo, of course.
Are you thinking seriously now? How about growing it?
* Bay can be cultivated in a container and brought indoors to overwinter, if your winters are too cool for it. When potted, it seldom grows taller than 6', but can be cultivated into a dense plant.
* It isn't really a shrub, it's a tree and it prefers rich, well-drained soil that has a sunny exposure. Place it away from other plants because once it gets started, it will need room to spread out. Its soil should be relatively moist and it doesn't like to dry out.
* When growing inside, fertilize in spring, but make sure you give it strong sunlight. It might like a weekend outside from time to time, too, if your climate has warm summers.
* It's fairly easy to propagate, though the process might take as long as a year. The end of summer or early fall is the best time to start new plants. The best way is to cut six inch stems of bay leaves from as close to the trunk as possible. Plant cuttings in medium-sized seeding pots, and keep pots indoors and well watered throughout the winter. In a little over a year, cuttings should be forming roots and ready for replanting.
* You can start to harvest bay once the plant is a couple of years old. The leaves should be dried before use, because fresh bay is bitter.
That's a lot of magic in one little spice, I think. Just remember there are other kinds of bay, other kinds of laurel, but Laurus nobilis is the only edible bay of the lot. Others are toxic and should not be consumed.
A bay leaf really should be discarded after having been used to flavor a food because even cooked it's leathery and could be scratchy to the digestive tract. When you are told to not eat it, that's why, not because it's toxic.
One more thing might be included in its magic; it is a pungent addition to potpourri!
Magic? I think bay is full of it.
The first image is courtesy of bonitin and you can see it in our ATP database by clicking on it.