As the the weather turns cooler, I love to spend time in the kitchen. One herb I always keep in the pantry is bay leaf. Adding one or two leaves to a simmering soup pot adds a distinctive albeit subtle earthy undertone. The leaves are very high in antioxidants and are thought to reduce inflammatory response. In traditional medicine, they were used to treat arthritis. Eaten whole, they can be a bit pungent and sharp, so remember to remove them before serving.
Bay is sometimes called “sweet bay” or laurel. The botanical name is Laurus nobilis. This small tree was sacred to the Greek god Apollo. His shrine at Delphi was roofed in laurel wood to protect against disease, witchcraft and lightning. (Never know when Big Daddy Zeus might launch a lightening bolt.) The oracle of Delphi chewed laurel leaves prior to prophesying. Symbolizing wisdom and glory, wreaths of laurel leaves rewarded poets and athletes alike. Our word “laureate” means “crowned with laurel.”
This Mediterranean native is not cold hardy here, so you will need to grow bay in a container. When danger of frost is out of the forecast, bay likes full sun. This evergreen tree can grow to be 10 to 20 feet tall and has an attractive rounded crown. Potted specimens will be smaller and are often topiary subjects.
Unfortunately, bay trees are prone to an array of pest and disease problems, the worst being scale. Scale are small insects of which there are about 1000 species in North America. Whether “soft” or “hard,” the scale adults live under a protective coating in one spot, sucking sap, excreting “honeydew” and reproducing. The “crawlers” move away from mom to find a spot to begin their own lifetime of sucking sap, et cetera. Females reproduce asexually. (If you care for details, ask an entomologist.) The males have wings, do not feed on plants, and are seldom seen. Scale is visible on your bay laurel as small bumps or lumps clustered together, exuding a sticky residue.
I lost a nice little laurel tree to scale because I really did not know how to deal with the problem. If the infestation is isolated, prune out that part of the plant, bag it and place in the trash. If the problem is widespread, the plant needs to be replaced. If the infected plant is recently purchased, I would return it to the seller.
Besides their culinary use, fresh bay leaves release volatile oils that are delightfully fragrant, making a laurel topiary a doubly delightful houseplant.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.