Sometimes the lore and legends of herbs are as compelling as the plant itself and bay leaf (Laurus nobilis), also known as sweet bay or bay laurel, is no exception. Its history dates back to the legends of the Greek god Apollo. Apollo was in love with the nymph Daphne, but wanting no part of his affections, she turned herself into a bay tree to hide from him. Hearing this he declared the bay tree sacred and wore a wreath of bay leaves on his head in her memory. The Latin laurus means 'laurel' and noblis 'renowned'; laureate means 'crowned with laurels' hence poet laureate and baccalaureate. Courtesy of Apollo, god of prophecy, poetry and healing, (but apparently a bad date) the ceremonial wreath of bay leaves became a mark of excellence crowning the heads of warrior-heroes, athletes and poets alike.
But back to the kitchen and garden. Hardy only to zone 8 (which makes it too tender to survive the winter outdoors in most of the United States) you might know sweet bay as a small bushy plant growing in a pot inside. Native to the eastern Mediterranean region the tree, which is very slow-growing, can reach heights of 40 feet. Grown both by gardeners and chefs alike as a culinary herb and/or as an ornamental foliage plant, sweet bay is a perennial evergreen tree grown as the only form of laurel used in cooking (note, all laurels except sweet bay are poisonous). The plant leaves are shiny, leathery smooth, oval shaped, dark green with an olive-green underside and a strong pungent spicy fragrance. The flowers are a creamy-yellow and the berries which follow are purplish-black.
Sweet bay also is an ideal plant for container and indoor growing. Like all plants in containers, potted sweet bay requires a little extra care - avoid drafts and hot spots, water correctly (not too much, not too little), use potting soil with good water retention (add vermiculite) as once the plant dries out there is no reviving it. Fertilize lightly in the spring. Place in a window that receives bright, reflected light, and if it is moved outdoors in the summer, give it some shade during the heat of the day as intense summer sun can scorch the leaves. The leaves can be harvested year round. Pick the older leaves as they have optimum flavor but give them a couple of days to dry before using. Totally fresh, they are bitter, but left too long, they lack pungency as the essential oils in the leaf are volatile and will dissipate.
Indispensable in the kitchen, bay leaves infuse soups and stews with a kind of pungent woodsy flavor. If you don't grow your own, at least check the fresh herbs in the produce section - look for an olive green in color, and avoid brown, which means they are old. At a minimum, throw out that dated bottle, buy a new batch, replenish often and cook with sweet bay not only for its noble history but because it is too regal to ignore, and utilized correctly, it will become a fixture in your kitchen.
Jane McLeod is a Master Gardener through the Routt County Cooperative Extension Service.