Bay Laurel

I am in awe of bay laurel, and as of this spring, perhaps even a little obsessed…though certainly not to the extent of Apollo’s affection for Daphne, who metamorphosed into a laurel tree to avoid his advances.   I have used bay as an herb prodigiously for years but sadly overlooked, I think now, its true beauty.  An artist friend once told me we often see only what we’re looking for, but after this terrible winter I was forced to look for, or rather at, my bay trees.  Thinking they were dead, I was then forced to look for other bay trees.  As is so often the case, my desperation forced consideration, and my need gave way to marvel as I began to see bay trees…philosophically speaking of course as they’re ridiculously scarce in Middle Georgia nurseries.   And also, as is so often the case, my inability to change my circumstances actually changed my circumstances as I gained awareness and perspective as I watched my bay trees battle back and slowly green, and send shoots from forgotten roots.  My husband now glories in the vagaries and relevance of procrastination whenever we’re near the bay tree that sprouted from a container I asked him to dump a couple of months ago.

But this is part of the point, the bay tree, while indigenous to the Mediterranean, is ideal for the Georgia climate and is listed for USDA Hardiness Zones 8 – 11, and usually survives temperatures between 30° - 100°F.  It’s often grown as a household container plant and can be cultivated as a topiary, shrub or tree, and can actually reach heights of 60’, though typically peaks at 25’ – 30’.   Some of mine are containered, both in the garden and on the patio, while some are in the ground; but none have ever been brought inside during the winter, as is often suggested, or I probably wouldn't be writing this article.  Bay laurel should be grown for both its beauty and usefulness, and should really be prolific here in Middle Georgia.

Laurus nobilis engraved illustration (1895)

Laurus nobilis engraved illustration (1895)

We use bay leaves at the restaurant for mirepoix, in many soups, stocks, sauces and stews.  It can also be used for braises, pâtés and often in a bouquet garni.  Dried leaves are much preferred as the concentration of essential oils is greatest without any of the bitterness green leaves contain.  Also, dried leaves store for up to a year.  Bay laurel leaves are not toxic, as is often mistakenly believed (although plants such as English, Mountain and Cherry Laurel are and, again, is why proper identification of Laurus nobilis is important), but the leaves are usually removed from prepared dishes before serving due to the sharp edges which could cause irritation if swallowed.  Bay leaves are further thought to have some medicinal value as well as act as an insect repellent, but anti-lightening properties attributed by some ancient Romans seems a little beyond the power of this noble plant.      

I look forward this summer to watching my bay trees, now that I can finally “see” them.  I hope I never look at them the same way again, as I revel in God’s intriguing design of ornamentation and utility.  I haven’t read the 1st century poet Ovid’s relating of Apollo and Daphne in Metamorphosis, even though he is from my hometown of Sulmona  (wink wink), but one must certainly say that for all his weaknesses, Apollo had a very good eye.

Apollo and Daphne illustration (1897) of Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculpture (1622-1625)

Apollo and Daphne illustration (1897) of Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculpture (1622-1625)

The Latin name for bay laurel is Laurus nobilis, and as noted, it has an almost mythological history.    It can be called, bay laurel, sweet bay, Grecian bay, Grecian laurel and sweet laurel.  I say this only because there are similar plants, some toxic while others are merely pungent, but you want the plants clearly marked Laurus nobilis.  I didn't fully appreciate the importance of the name until I asked a cultivator in St. Simons if he had any bay trees to which he replied, “Bay laurel?”  To which I replied, “The one you use for cooking.”  An evergreen that is summer and husband proof, is used for cooking and can further be mused upon does seem almost otherworldly.  

Bay laurel topiary in patio container at Ecco Qua.

Rustically kept bay tree in the herb garden at Ecco Qua.

Rustically kept bay tree in the herb garden at Ecco Qua.