A plant of much renown and lore, bay is an essential culinary herb with a long history. The Latin name, Laurus nobilis, means praise and nobility.
In ancient Greece, one of the highest honors one could receive was a wreath made from bay. Even today, bay remains a symbol of victory and honor (think of the words baccalaureate, or poet laureate). Bay leaves are used either fresh or dry to flavor all kinds of savory recipes, from soups and stews to rice or meat dishes. Leaves are left whole to cook, but are not themselves eaten because they are stiff and sharp and can potentially cause damage to the mouth or throat if ingested. The leaves are said to repel pantry moths when placed in cupboards.
Though it is native to the rocky shores of the Mediterranean, bay is surprisingly easy to grow in the Pacific Northwest. In its native habitat, the slow-growing tree can reach heights of 40 feet or more, but home-grown bay usually remains much smaller. It can easily be pruned into a bushy shrub, small tree, or even a topiary form. Bay can be a bit frost-tender (it will suffer if temperatures fall too far below freezing, and may die in more severe cold), and does not prefer soggy soils, but if precautions are taken against frost and soil is amended to promote good drainage, bay is a care-free plant.
If you want to grow your bay tree in the ground, identify a warm microclimate in your yard. A south-facing wall near a building, or a brick or stone structure will retain heat and help keep your plant cozy. Also be sure to choose a place that is protected from potential wind. Keep a frost blanket on hand and cover the plant when temperatures threaten to fall below 25 degrees F. Mulching around the base of the plant with leaves or straw can help insulate the soil, but be sure to remove the mulch in the spring to allow the soil to warm up and dry out more quickly.
Bay is also well suited to container culture. Since it is quite slow-growing, it can live a long time in a pot. This is ideal if you have a very small garden, or if your climate is cold enough to where you’ll need to bring the plant inside for the winter. Indoors, situate the plant in a very bright window, or provide supplemental light with a full-spectrum bulb. Keep the plant away from direct heat sources, and mist leaves occasionally.
There are only a few varieties of bay available, but they are all evergreen and good for culinary use.
Willow-leaf bay. Long, slender leaves and compact habit.
Golden-leaf bay. New growth is bright gold.