Jacqueline Soule this week, to discuss an herb you can plant now. This herb is a large shrub/small tree that can even be used as a houseplant! I am speaking of bay (Laurus nobilis), also called laurel, or bay laurel. (In Spanish it is called laurel.) Bay is used for Craft, Culinary, Ornamental and Pest Control purposes.
In ancient Greece and Rome, the bay tree was considered sacred to Apollo, the sun deity. Leafy branches of bay were woven into wreaths to crown the heads of kings and queens, priests, priestesses, poets, bards, and the victors of battles and athletic or scholarly contests. At the first Olympics in 776 B.C.E., laurel garlands were presented to the champions of each contest. During the Renaissance, doctors, upon passing their final examinations, were decorated with berried branches of bay. From this ancient custom derives the French word baccalaureate (from “bacca,” a berry, and “laureus,” of laurel); this has been modified into the term “bachelor” in referring to one type of college degree.
Bay has been used medicinally for centuries. It has a reputation for soothing the stomach and relieving flatulence. Bay has also been used as an astringent, diuretic, narcotic, or stimulant. An infusion (tea) is prepared for these purposes.
Oil of Bay, extracted from the leaves, contains many components, including cineol, geraniol, and some eugenol. Studies of the purified essential oil have proven bactericidal and fungicidal properties. Use as a narcotic may be due to the eugenol found in bay (an oil also found in cloves), which has been shown to have sedative and narcotic effects in mice. Bay is used externally, and considered by some to be a healing agent for rheumatism. In such cases the essential oil is rubbed on the aching joints. A soothing bath soak is prepared from an infusion of the leaves, and added to the bath water. External use of bay may cause dermatitis in sensitive individuals. Always test a small patch of skin before widespread use.
Planting and Care.
The bay laurel is an evergreen tree with glossy, deep green leaves. It grows well in arid climates such as Greece, Italy, southern France, and here in the Pimería Alta. Bay is a lovely tree for the yard or even poolside. Growing slowly to form a stately tree, in the very best conditions it will eventually reach 40 feet high (it takes decades). Like most herbs, soil with good drainage is required.
The only problem with bay is that young trees are frost tender, and must be protected much like a citrus tree. You can grow bay in a container when it is young and move it onto a protected porch for the winter. Plant it out once the plant has some size as it is less likely to freeze, or you can keep in a container for years. Indeed, you can also grow bay indoors, if you have a well-lit space.
Be sure you buy true bay laurel. Landscape plants sold as “laurel” may be Prunus laurocerasus, also called the English or cherry laurel; a member of the rose family.
Harvesting and Use.
Bay as a flavoring herb is always used dried. There are several bitter tasting compounds which are lost with drying, leaving the flavorful and useful oils. Leaves are used whole and removed prior to serving as they leave a bitter taste if chewed. Add bay to your cooking, or prepare as an infusion base for soups.
Bay leaves are used as a pest repellent for flour weevils. Just add several leaves, ideally in a muslin bag, to your flour canisters. Change to fresh leaves every six months. Use the old leaves as organic mulch in the garden.
Bay leaves, either fresh or dried, can be used to create lovely long lasting herbal wreaths.
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including the latest, “Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening,” written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press, $23).
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