Bay Leaf, Victorious Wreaths and Rich Flavoring

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Bay (Laurus nobilis) is a small evergreen tree or shrub. You can find it growing in mountains and fields of the Mediterranean and surrounding areas. You may recognise it by other common names include bay tree, sweet bay, true laurel, Grecian laurel and bay laurel. It has distinctive smooth, narrow, deep green leaves in an oval shape. When flowering it produces tiny, pale, yellow flowers.

In the wild it can grow to a maximum height of approximately 20 metres tall. However when cultivated, many people choose to restrict its height. With a fairly short trunk and a wide spread of branches and leaves emerging from the centre. Many gardeners use it to create borders and hedging, and is a popular choice for those who practice topiary.

Laurus nobilis (Photo by H. Zell on Wikimedia Commons)
Laurus Nobilis Illustration (by Walther Otto Müller – Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen on Wikimedia Commons)

Cultivation and History of Bay Leaf

People have cultivated bay leaves for centuries throughout the Mediterranean, for symbolic and ornamental significance as well as their culinary value. A popular addition to many gardens, although in colder climates a container indoors may be more suitable.

It typically grows best in warmer to subtropical climates, preferring semi-dry soil conditions, with full sun or partial shade. It has an exceptionally slow growing speed, and will sometimes only flower after 10-30 years, with shiny, olive like fruits which contain a brown seed appearing shortly afterwards.


You can safely consume bay leaves as they are not toxic. However there are a number of toxic laurel species that many can often misidentify as traditional bay. So if you are harvesting the leaves of a wild variety you must take care. Although not toxic, you should not consume whole bay leaves as you cannot digest them.


Culinary uses of bay leaf

Many people use bay leaves in a wide variety of hot and cold dishes. They are particularly popular in French, Italian, Spanish cuisines. You can use them in ice creams, infused oils, stews, sauces and soups. The aromatic bay leaf, whether whole or ground adds a strong, herbal taste, often compared to Oregano and Thyme.

Typically cooks will add whole leaves into a recipe, where they simmer and cook, before removing them before serving. From a rich classic Italian Bolognese sauce, to a warming and flavorful French Ratatouille. You can also use dried and ground in recipes without the need for removing the whole leaves afterwards.

Medicinal uses of bay leaf

Alchemists have used bay leaves for thousands of years for the health benefits they provided. Joint and muscle pains, stomach issues, boils and inflammations can be relieved when taking ointments with bay leaf extracts.

Scientists and researchers are frequently conducting studies into other possible uses bay leaves could have in modern medicine. One promising study notes that the leaves may help those with type 2 diabetes, as it may possibly reduce blood sugar levels.

Did you know…

Bay leaves held great significance and symbolism in Ancient Greece, its original name was Daphne. Many may be unfamiliar with the myth of the god Apollo and the priestess of Gaia, Daphne. It is said that she escapes his unwanted advances and seduction by being transported to Crete by Gaia. In her place a laurel tree was left. Apollo is said to have fashioned wreaths from its leaves to calm and console himself.

Romans saw the bay leaf as symbol of victory, immortality, prosperity and health. Worn often by emperors as a good omen. You can see laurel wreaths being worn by graduating students in Italy as a way to symbolise their success and victory.

A graduating student's Laurel Wreath
A graduating student’s Laurel Wreath (Photo by Archeologo on Wikimedia Commons)


Bay leaves are a great way to add a deep, rich and earthy flavor to your dishes, from seafood to curries, risottos and pasta. They can also add an attractive garnish to your meals for serving purposes. You can also use the leaves as an insect repellent, place them in certain areas around the home to repel, meal moths, cockroaches and even weevils in flour. The plant itself also makes a beautifully ornamental addition to your garden and home as a house plant or even for trying out your hedging or topiary skills.

Written by Hannah Sweet
Hannah is a freelance writer and graphic designer from the UK. With a penchant for travelling, photography and all things botanical, she enjoys writing about a wealth of topics and issues, from conservation and slow living, to design and travel. Learn more about her writing and design services at

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