Laurus nobilis, or bay tree, is an evergreen shrub or small tree that grows best in Mediterranean-like climates. As a tree, it can reach as high as 60 feet. The bay (leaf) tree is also commonly called bay laurel or sweet bay. Other names you may come across include Indian laurel, poet's laurel, Roman laurel, Grecian laurel, wreath laurel and Apollo's bay leaf tree.
The pointy bay tree leaves feel leathery, look shiny, are oval-shaped and measure up to 3 inches long. The underside of each leaf is a lighter shade of green than the topside. The tree blooms white or yellow-green flowers by May, and these flowers grow grouped together in bunches. Small berries with one seed start off a red-blue color but then turn purple-black as they age. Each piece of fruit is half an inch long.
The bay tree likes moist soil and light fertilization during the growing season. Plant or place it in a spot with full or partial sun. Protect the shallow root system from heat and frost by adding mulch to the soil. Repot it every second or third year.
The bay tree represents victory and has a significant place in the history of ancient Rome and Greece. During the ancient Games, the Greeks gave out wreaths made of bay leaves to the winners. This wreath was in honor of the sun god Apollo, who wore it on behalf of his beloved who had been turned into a bay tree. The Romans wore bay wreaths to protect them from disease and lightning; in fact, Emperor Tiberius was so superstitious and afraid of lightning that he wore one constantly. In the Middle Ages, people thought bay trees offered protection from witchcraft.
Cooks use fresh and dried bay tree leaves in flavoring for sauces, soups, stews, fish, meat and poultry. Dried leaves also serve as an herbal tea brew and can protect grain from the onslaught of weevils. The leaves are harvested in the summer and lose their flavor after a year. Cooks also use the dried fruit of the bay tree as flavoring.
Bay tree leaves have medicinal properties that have been used to alleviate headaches and migraines, treat colic and rheumatism, and reduce stomach ulcer effects. They help lower blood sugar by aiding the body in processing insulin. The leaves also possesses antioxidant, antifungal, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory aspects.