Little Bay Tree

For the last seven or eight years, we had a bay tree growing on our back deck. Sadly, it did not survive the harsher than usual winter we had in Atlanta last year. Recently, we found a gorgeous replacement at Pike Nursery. After potting and watering the little tree, my husband promptly went out and picked one of the leaves for the fish stock he had on the stove. We quickly realized how much we had missed having ready access to fresh bay leaves!

Bay laurel (sometimes known as Sweet bay) is a small, evergreen shrub or tree that is the source of bay leaves used in cooking. Bay leaves are best known as a member of the classic herb combination called “Bouquet Garni,” along with parsley and thyme. Traditionally, these herbs are tied together when fresh, and added to soups, stews, and meat dishes. After simmering, the bouquet is removed.

These shrubs are native to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. Bay laurel grows best in soils that retain moisture and are well drained. It prefers exposure to full sunlight but can also grow well in sites with light shade. Bay laurel plants need protection from the cold during severe winter weather!

The early Greeks and Romans admired the bay laurel for its beauty and used the aromatic leaves in many different ways. Bay was a symbol of the Greco-Roman gods Apollo and Aesculapius, who were gods responsible for healing and medicine. Medications made from the bay laurel were believed to have extremely potent protective and healing effects. Legend says that Apollo was madly in love with a nymph named Daphne, but Daphne wanted no part of his affections so she turned herself into a bay tree to hide from him. When Apollo realized this, he declared the bay tree sacred and wore a wreath of its leaves on his head in her memory. Thus a wreath of bay laurels was given as the prize at the Pythian Games and prompted the expression “resting on one's laurels." It is also the source of the word baccalaureate and poet laureate.