A savory, aromatic leaf that is the staple of soups and stews is celebrated as the 2009 Herb of the Year.
A native of the Mediterranean region, bay leaf (Laurus nobilis), sometimes called sweet bay is an evergreen shrub or tree with sturdy, waxy leaves. It is a basic ingredient in soups, stews, sauces and roasting, and has long been valued for its medicinal uses. It’s also an element in Greek mythology in the tale of Daphne, Apollo, spurned love and its consequences. Daphne was turned into a bay tree to avoid the unwanted advances of Apollo.
“Apollo was so astounded by the tree’s beauty that he claimed the laurel as his own and dedicated it to reward the highest achievements of Greek civilization. Bay was first an herb of poets, but also of oracles, warriors, statesmen and doctors. The leaves were made into wreaths for illustrious poets; thus, the term poet laureate, and the ancients used the leaves to crown heroes. Bay laurel was the symbol of wisdom, both acquired and intuitive,” according to the February/March 2009 issue of the Herb Companion .
Bay leaf has been used as an herbal treatment for stomach- and headaches, muscle pain, colds and inflammation. It is known to have antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Most of the time, we buy this herb dried and packaged at the grocery, spice stores or farmers markets. Rarely do we see this plant in garden centers, but last summer, I saw small specimens of sweet bay in three-inch pots in the herb section at a retailer, marked for sale at $7.99. Unfortunately, this tender, woody plant is not winter hardy in Indiana.
You could grow it outdoors in summer in a pot with well-drained soil in full sun, then harvest and dry the leaves at the end of the season. Or, winter it over indoors in a bright, sunny location.
There are several plants with the common names laurel, bay or sweet bay, some of which are poisonous, so for food, stick with Laurus nobilis.