Why You Should Start Growing Bay in Your Herb Garden

Finding a Place for a Bay Tree in Your Herb Garden

The bay leaves which you can buy off the shelf in a supermarket grow on the evergreen Bay Laurel Tree. They have a distinct aroma and are widely used in growing bay trees in your gardencooking and in preparing perfumes. The leaves have a sharp, bitter flavor with a taste somewhat similar to cinnamon bark.

No herb garden is really complete without a bay bush or tree in it, but if you start growing bay alongside other herbs in your herb garden bear in mind that bay trees can get very big, very quickly and dwarf the other herbs in your herb garden.  Over a couple of years a small bay bush can grow into a dense, lush shrub or tree (see the photograph on the left – this bay tree started off as a small shrub a couple of years ago).  So when you start growing bay make sure you have planned the layout of your herb garden  so that your bay tree doesn’t deprive your other herbs of light and water. I’ve provided more tips on growing bay below.

One of the big benefits of growing bay, apart from the culinary benefit,  is that because its an evergreen the bay tree or bush can add color to your herb garden during the winter when other herbs and plants have died or gone into hibernation for the winter. Lots of herb gardeners shape their bay trees so that they become year-round features in the garden. You’ll probably come across many gardens that have shaped bay trees in them even though there might not be another herb in site.

Your evergreen bay will provide you with a plentiful supply of leaves throughout the year, although lots of cooks claim that partly or completely dried bay leaves have much more flavor than fresh bay leaves.  

The flavor  and fragrance of bay are very distinctive. If you cook a lot using herbs you’ll find that there are lots of recipes (mostly Mediterranean- style) that recommend using bay leaves in soups, stews, braised meat and pâtés.

Why Did Roman Generals Wear Bay Leaf Wreaths?bay leag crown

To the Greeks the bay tree was a sacred tree. Its symbolism was extended by the Romans who where real enthusiasts for growing bay.

The Romans routinely used bay leaf wreaths to symbolize wisdom and glory. Roman generals returning to Rome after successful military campaigns overseas were crowned with wreaths of sweet bay leaves, and bay leaves became a recognizable feature carved into the tops of columns in Roman temples and buildings.

Perhaps this is a good point at which to mention that sweet bay is often described as a laurel, but its the only member of the laurel family that’s edible – all the other members of the laurel family are poisonous.

Choose the Right Size Bay Tree for Your Herb Garden

shaped sweet bay treesAs we mentioned above, every good garden center or garden outlet will have sweet bay shrubs or trees for sale.  You’ll probably find you have a choice of a basic sweet bay shrub or a sweet bay tree, and perhaps a choice of different cut shapes.

As we mentioned earlier in this article on growing bay, the tree you choose should be a suitable in size for your herb garden. When choosing it bear in mind that you’ll need to leave an area of couple of feet diameter free around base of your sweet bay tree.  

If you plant other herbs near to the tree they’re unlikely to flourish as the tree grows. Because of this limitation I don’t plant bay tress directly in my herb garden; I plant them in a container in another part of my garden.

Whatever you choose to do when you start growing bay, make sure you choose a position for your sweet bay tree that gets the full sun and make sure the soil around the root of your bay tree is rich (use a good compost and dig it into the soil) and well-drained.  

How You Can Use the Leaves from Your Bay Tree

Like many other herbs, bay leaves are not only useful in cooking, they also have protective and medicinal properties. These uses for bay are described below.

Herb Gardening Help Bullet  Cooking with Sweet Bay Tree Leaves

Bay leaves have been used for flavoring food for hundreds of years. In both European and American cuisines they are used in soups, stews, meat, seafood, vegetable dishes, and sauces. French cooks use them extensively in their food as a bouquet garni (see below). Thai cuisine also uses bay leaves a lot (the Thai name for bay is bai kra wan) in a few Arab-influenced dishes (e.g massaman curry).

bouquet garni with bay leavesThe bouquet garni is a bundle of herbs wrapped in a muslin cloth tied up with string. The bouquet garni keeps the herbs together during the cooking. It’s often used with casseroles, stocks, sauces and soups etc because the whole bag of herbs can be removed afterwards before the meal is served. The traditional bouquet garni always contains the bay leaves along with parsley (or parsley stalks, which have lots of flavor) and a few sprigs of thyme. 

If you use whole bay leaves in your cooking, make sure you remove them before serving because they can be very abrasive to the digestive tract. Alternatively, the bay leaves can be crushed before cooking, but if you do this removing the fragments of bay leaf after cooking will be difficult. In view of this its not difficult to understand why the bouquet garni is used.  

Lots of cooks grind up their sweet bay tree leaves before using them because the ground up bay imparts a much stronger taste to the food.

Herb Gardening Help Bullet  Bay Leaf Insect Repellent

Bay leaves used to be scattered in pantries (kitchen cupboards) to repel meal moths, flies, roaches, mice and silver fish.  A good traditional use was to place a few bay leaves in the flour bin to repel weevels. However, its much less likely to find flour bins these days than it used to be.

Herb Gardening Help Bullet  Using Bay Leaves as Medicine

Substantial new research has also been done on using bay leaves as antiseptics and in anti-inflammatory drugs. Sweet bay These leaves are also thought to contain many anti-cancer properties. The chemical compound lauroside B isolated from Laurus nobilis is an inhibitor of human melanoma (skin cancer) cell proliferation when used at at high concentrations.

In massage therapy, the essential oil of bay laurel is reputed to alleviate arthritis and rheumatism. In aromatherapy it is used to treat earache and high blood pressure.

A traditional folk remedy for rashes called by poison ivy, poison oak and stinging nettles is a poultice soaked in boiled bay leaves (formidable!!).

Here’s a mdried sweet bay tree leavesore detailed  list of bay medicinal recipes.

Drying & Storing Your Bay Leaves

As we mentioned above, when you want a stronger flavor of bay in your cooking you should use previously dried bay leaves, and for an even stronger flavor crush these leaves up well before you use them.

To dry bay leaves lay them out on a large tray in a warm area. Turn them over periodically until there completely dry and then store them in a suitable airtight jar. The dried leaves will be an olive green and will keep for quite a long while, but they do gradually oxidize and become brown. When this happens throw them away and dry a fresh batch. The brown leaves will have lost their flavor and  potency. 

Happy herb gardening,


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