Greek Laurel, Cooking Bay

Dr. William C. Welch, Landscape Horticulturist
Texas Cooperative Extension, Texas A&M University

Click on picture for larger image

Greek Laurel

Many plants go under the name of laurel, but only one is properly so called. The laurel goes by many common names, such as sweet bay, cooking bay, Greek laurel, poet's laurel, or victor's laurel. It is a native of southern Europe and a beautiful evergreen shrub or small tree. Although grown throughout the world as a container plant, it is fairly cold-sensitive and freezes back occasionally even in Zone 9.

Because of their agreeable flavor, the leaves are popular in cooking and in various confections. One source (Peter Henderson, 1890) indicates that dried figs imported into this country were usually packed with bay leaves.

The leathery, evergreen foliage responds well to clipping and the plant is popular as a topiary specimen, shaping well into cones, pyramids, standards, or hedges. Leaves are typically 2 to 4 inches long and dark green, and the plant usually has a compact tapering form. Frances and Milton Parker's beautiful garden in Beaufort, South Carolina, has a bay hedge about 8 feet tall that separates two "rooms" in their landscape. It is reported to be at least 150 years old, and has suffered only occasional damage from cold. Large old specimens of treelike proportions are supposed to exist in Brenham, Texas, and a very old plant at the Gideon Lincecum home site at Long Point, Texas (Washington County) may date back to the original home (1843). The plant at the Lincecum site was neglected for many years and continued to prosper until its recent exposure to a large bulldozer. Even that experience has not caused its demise; like all bay trees, it has sprouted readily from the roots to form clumps.

Since I have never seen fruit on L. nobilis, I surmise that the plants I have grown and seen are propagated from male stock. References describe the fruit as a source of essential oils used in the making of laurin ointment, which is useful in human and veterinary medicine. The flowers are described as yellowish and the fruit black or dark purple - the size of a small cherry. The berries are also reported to be distilled to make a liqueur called Fioravanti. The fruit has also been used to create sweat-inducing aromatic baths. Probably the best known decorative use of the plant is the formation of leaves and stems into wreaths for crowning heroes and scholars. The term "laureate" is a result of that tradition. The plant was used as a medicinal cure-all until the eighteenth century, and according to Culpeper's The English Physician Enlarged, or the Herbal, 1653, it was useful to "resisteth witchcraft very potently."

The bay is not fussy about soil type but requires good drainage. It is quite drought tolerant, but does best with some afternoon shade during the hot summer months. Propagation is by division of the root parts, cuttings, or seeds. Cuttings are not easily rooted, but nurseries experienced with mist systems and summer rooting of semi-hardwood cuttings report some success.

Bay plants are available from nurseries specializing in herbs and unusual plants. Although susceptibility to cold damage limits their use, they are otherwise easily grown and are an interesting and useful plant for containers.