Bay leaves, Laurus nobilis, are an herb that's also known as sweet bay, bay laurel, and Turkish bay. The last cognomen is to distinguish it from California bay, which is similar, but distinct — a plant named Umbellularia Californica.
History. Winners of athletic contests in Ancient Greece were crowned with a wreath of laurel or bay leaves. Poets, statesmen, and war heroes of ancient times were so honored as well. Laurel was considered sacred to the god Apollo.
Description. Bay leaves come from an evergreen bush or tree that can grow to a height of 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 meters). The leaves are long and pointed. The plant is native to the Mediterranean.
Gardening. Outdoors, bay trees do best in partial shade. They should be planted in soil with good drainage. They are also grown indoors as house plants, in which case the soil should be rich. The whitish flowers appear in April through May. Leaves may be used fresh or harvested and spread in a dark place to dry.
Food and Other Uses. The taste of bay is described as bitter and pungent, and it ranks at two of ten on the hotness scale. Bay leaves are aromatic when crushed or burned, and they are often left to steep in liquid and removed before serving.
Bay leaves are a traditional ingredient of the French bouquet garnis. They are used in the preparation of meat, game, stuffing, soup, stew, sauces, marinade, and bland vegetables. They are also used in the production of bay rum, which originated in the West Indies; and they are one of the characteristic Cajun spices, along with cayenne, hot pepper sauce, black and white pepper, thyme, and file powder. They are also characteristic of the cuisines of Brazil, Greece, Germany and Eastern Europe, Jamaica, and Scandinavia.
Bay leaves can be used in crafts to make dry topiary and wreaths, and may be used along with other ingredients, such as apples and rose hips, in inclusion candles. They are also used as a filler in sachets. In a different area, this herb is said to be effective as a roach repellent. Powdered berries from the bay tree are used in cosmetics.