by Barbara Porsch
Sweet bay is the familiar laurel in Greek and Roman mythology and history. It was dedicated to Apollo, the sun god, and boughs of the tree were circled into crowns to decorate war heroes, athletes, poets and scholars and was used as a part of weddings and funerals.
The term baccalaureate comes from ‘earning laurels’ meaning honor and praise. In the 1600s, Nicholas Culpeper an English herbalist, botanist, physician and astrologer not only recommended sweet bay for wasp stings, poisons of venomous creatures and other infectious diseases, but acknowledged its alleged powers against witchcraft and other evils. In its native Mediterranean area, bay can grow to 60 feet or more. In our area it needs a protected warm sunny area with well drained soil. It is often grown as a shrub in a large tub so it can be moved to a protected area in the winter. Mine grows in the ground in a raised bed against the south side of my house. Leaves can be picked year round and used fresh or air dry them for future use. Bay is routinely mixed with thyme, marjoram and parsley to make a bouquet garni. It is used in the liquid to pickle everything from cucumbers to shrimp. It can be used whole to flavor soups and stews, but always remove the leaf before serving because it does not soften and can injure the intestines. I like to drop a leaf into the water when I steam vegetables and slip a leaf under the edge of a meatloaf to bake. They have been put into containers of flour or grains to prevent weevils. Oil of bay has been used for skin diseases and bruises. Tea is used to treat sprains and aching joints. Try a bay plant. You will see there is a lot more flavor than in the ones you purchase at the grocery store.