A true bay leaf plant comes from the Bay Laurel, Laurus nobilis. Herbs also called bay leaf and used in cooking and for other purposes include the California bay leaf, Indian bay leaf and Indonesian bay leaf. Although all of these plants produces leaves that are used to season and spice foods, technically only Laurus nobilis, the true bay, counts as a bay plant.
About the Real Bay Leaf Plant
True bay leaves come from the bay laurel. Native to the Mediterranean, bay laurel is a large evergreen tree that can grow as tall as 60 feet. The leaves are harvested, dried, and used as an aromatic spice to season soups, stews and dishes. Fresh bay laurel leaves have very little flavor. The flavors emerge weeks after the leaves have been left to air dry.
History and Folklore
The true bay leaf plant has a long and distinguished history. In ancient Greece and parts of Turkey, bay laurel was woven into crowns or wreaths and given to champion athletes or heroes. Wreaths of laurel symbolized Apollo and were also prizes in the Pythian Games. This is where we get the modern day expression "resting on your laurels" meaning to achieve a great victory but never strive for more. A champion literally rested on his laurels or on the symbol of his victory, the laurel or bay leaf wreath.
Christians believe that bay symbolizes the resurrection of Christ, and bay leaves are often used to symbolize this event. In the Bible, bay leaves are a symbol of prosperity, honor and fame.
Culinary Use of Bay Leaves
Bay is one of the many cooking spices found in the majority of kitchens. Bay provides a depth of seasoning to many meats and is especially useful for seasoning soups and stews or any dish that has to simmer for a long amount of time. Typically, bay leaves are added at the start of cooking and removed once the dish is cooked.
False Bay Plants
Other plants are often mistaken for the bay leaf plant. California bay has a stronger flavor than Bay Laurel, but may also be used for cooking. It is also called pepperwood or Oregon myrtle. The Indian plant is actually more closely related to cinnamon and does not taste at all like what Americans perceive bay leaves to taste like. Indonesian bay leaves, on the other hands, are also used to season meat. Instead of cooking the meat with the bay leaves, the leaves are rubbed against the meat before it is roasted or braised. Indonesian bay isn't usually found outside of Indonesian markets, so don't worry about mixing up the bay leaves you need for tonight's dinner with the wrong one. All cans of spices marked 'bay leaves" at the supermarket will provide the typical rich flavor of the bay laurel.
Growing True Bay Laurel
You can grow bay laurel as a culinary herb at home. True bay laurel needs a climate similar to their natural Mediterranean habitat. Zones 7 to 10 provide the basics of what they need but if you purchase a bay laurel plant, you may need to baby it or provide special protection for it during the winter months. It's best to treat a bay plant as a houseplant, keeping it protected in a bright, sunny window. You can more easily control the climate and conditions and keep your plant happy for years to come.
Purchase bay laurel plants online from Amazon.com.
Medicine Uses of Bay Leaves
According to Herbal Extracts Plus, the scent of bay leaves reduces or helps a headache. The herb itself, when used as part of cooking, is reputed to have a stimulating effect on digestion. This may be why it is often used during the preparation of meat, since many people have difficulty digesting meat. Bay might stimulate the digestive juices, thus our ancestors added it to the stew meat pot both for flavor and health reasons.
Pregnant women should never use bay leaves nor women with any kind of uterine conditions or complication. Bay leaves may stimulate uterine contractions. It may also interfere with blood glucose regulation and bay leaf extract should not be used by diabetics or people who have trouble regulating their blood glucose levels, such as hypoglycemic or hyperglycemic individuals.