Bay is an attractive evergreen, ornamental and culinary herb that was a regular feature of our RHS floral displays. These same Bay trees are now standing proud in the beds nearest the cafe which you can admire on our Open Days.
Background, meaning and mythology of Bay
Bay is from the family Lauracea and its botanical name is Laurus nobilis that is translated as either ‘praise’, ‘famous’ or ‘renowned’. This reflects the respect given to it by the Romans. A Bay wreath is the symbol of wisdom and glory and the word laureate means to be ‘crown with laurels’, which is the reason behind Poet Laureate.
In Greek mythology it is said that the priestesses of Apollo, the Greek god of prophecy, ate large doses of Bay as a narcotic before expounding Apollo’s oracles at Delphi.
How to grow Bay
Bay is native to Southern Europe and therefore, you should look to reproduce this climate when growing it. In general, keep Bay well watered, especially during dry periods over summer, and feed monthly when grown in a container. Bay is hardy throughout most of the UK and can survive to -10 Deg C. However, Bay is shallow rooted and can be prone to frost damage. The leaves can also be scorched by the wind in very cold weather. Therefore, you might wish to protect Bay with horticultural fleece in winter. If you keep your Bay in a container, you could move to a light, frost free position if possible and raise onto pot feet to allow excess water to drain away.
How to plant and care for Bay
Young bay plants are best planted in the spring after all danger of frost has past, giving plants time to establish before the winter. When planting out, position the plant in full sun, protect form the wind, and in rich well-drained soil. If your soil is not well drained, consider growing plants in pots filled with soil-based or multipurpose peat-free compost. Jekka prunes and clips our Bays with shears in summer and removes any unwanted growth as soon as it is spotted.
Culinary and medicinal uses of Bay
Bay leaves are used in long-simmering dishes; they impart a slightly sharp, peppery, almost bitter taste. For example, they are used in sauces, soups and stews and with meat, seafood, and vegetable dishes. The leaves also flavour many classic French dishes.
Add the whole leaves (sometimes in a bouquet garni) at the beginning of the cooking process and remember to remove them before serving. In general, fresh leaves are more aromatic in flavour than dried ones. You can also preserve Bay leaves in vinegars. Medicinally the infused leaves aid digestion and increase the appetite.
Jekka's favourite Bay recipe is for Bay ice cream, one Jekka's Herb-Based recipes.
A word of warning
Some members of the laurel family, as well as the unrelated but visually similar mountain laurel and cherry laurel, have leaves that are poisonous to humans and livestock. Jekka's tip to check whether your Bay is indeed edible, is to hold a leaf to the light, where you should be able to see its veins and it should not be opaque, it should also smell sweet when broken.
Want to know more?
For advice on growing and maintaining herbs, check out Jekka's How to Grow Herbs videos and ‘Jekka’s Seasonal Tips’ blog series, which includes what to do in your herb garden in early spring, late spring and autumn & winter.
Herb plants are available and you can organise a collection from our herb farm in South Gloucestershire or at one of our Open Days or Herb Experiences (see our events calendar). Please see our 'Looking Good List' for availability and use our webform or email your list directly to us (firstname.lastname@example.org). We no longer offer a mail order service for our plants.