Lessons in Magical Herbalism: Bay
Laurus Nobilis - True Bay
I think Nicholas Culpepper put it best when he said in Culpeper's Complete Herbal: This is so well known, that it needs no description. Everyone knows bay, and it's a major staple in many kitchens, particularly for people who like to make soups and stews. Native to the Mediterranean, it’s particularly popular in cuisines from that region as well.
A truly noble plant, the Romans and Greeks wore wreaths it as a symbol of glory. The words laureate and baccalaureate are derivatives of the plant’s scientific name.
Bay is actually not an herb—it’s a tree, which makes it technically a spice. The reason it’s considered an herb is because its fragrant leaves are used similarly to other herbs—thrown right into the soup pot. It’s also a great leaf to dry and use in crafts, and a wonderful addition to the medical or magical herbal stockpile.
Bay trees grow as high as 25 feet tall, but growing it in a large pot will keep it to a more manageable dwarf size of about 4 feet if you prefer. It’s light to medium green almond-shape leaves grow on woody stems.
Because of its size and slow rate of growth, it can be difficult for some home herb gardeners to grow bay—if you do have the inkling to grow it, go for it.
Details About Bay
sweet bay, Grecian laurel, noble laurel, laurel leaf
USDA hardiness zone:
8b - 11
True Bay Starter Plant
Talk about instant gratification, these little potted herbs can get yo off to a good start!
A Blossoming Bay Tree
You can propagate bay from cuttings but it takes almost a year. You can also start it from seeds, but it takes over 2 years for the plant to establish and mature.
For instant gratification, I think it’s best to just get yourself a starter plant from the nursery when it comes to bay.Get a 2 year old transplant and you can begin using it right away, and it’ll keep growing.
You may have noticed by the hardiness zones that bay likes a warm climate— this poses a problem. It doesn't grow fast enough to treat it as an annual. Don’t be discouraged if you are a northern gardener, though. Bay can tolerate temps below freezing, just not for extended periods of time. You just have to figure out a way to overwinter the plant.
A green house is great, or even a very sunny window. Just keep your bay potted and bring it indoors to overwinter. It needs lots of light, so supplement grow lights if necessary.
One gardener I heard of in the Tennessee mountains dug a 6-foot pit, planted the bay down in it, and covered it with Plexiglas so it would let in lots of light during the day. Being down in the ground helped to naturally insulate the plant from the cold, and it had a terrarium-like effect in that the water that evaporated got caught on the Plexiglas and rained back down on the plant. The tree survived below zero temperatures— and that teaches us that when there is a will, there is a way!
Soil, Feeding and Watering Bay
They’re not picky about soil, and they can tolerate from alkaline to acidic soil. They like partial sun, and they do like to be sheltered from the wind. I keep my bay tree in a kind of a corner where it gets morning light for about 3 hours, and then evening light as the sun sets for about 3 hours, and it’s very happy there.
Average fertilizing and watering—just tend to it in general, and it’ll be fine. It’s not fussy.
Pinch the buds—this will force the tree to branch out more.
Potential Problems with Bay
A lot of pests tend to like it. That’s the thing you have to watch out for. One preventative measure that will help you protect the plant is to spray it with rubbing alcohol—stems and leaves (don’t forget to get the underside).
Here's an interesting way to keep aphids away from potted bay-- cover the top of the soil in the pot with aluminum foil, shiny side up. Something about the reflection confuses them, and they are less troublesome. I do this with many of my aphid-prone potted herbs. It's a great prevention method, and the foil acts as mulch.
The Bay Tree!
Harvesting and Using Bay
Harvest Bay by the leaf. Keep in mind that they grow fairly slowly so don’t harvest young plants too often. Dry them by putting them in a shoebox and stashing it on a sunny window (shake them up a couple times a day for aeration). Or, line them on a baking sheet in a barely warm oven. They dry out pretty nicely, then you can store them. I like to store them whole in mason jars.
When you’re going to cook with them, break and crush them slightly to release the aroma and oils.
Use these liberally in cooking—kitchen Witches who like to infuse magical energies into everyday foods will love bay.
If your tree is big enough, leafy branches look pretty when added to floral arrangements, and dried bay leaves are excellent for wreaths and herbal crafts.
Tell Us About You!
Do you grow your own bay?
Recommended Gardening Book for Northern Gardners:
I live in the subtropics now, but I still love what my husband calls "garden porn"-- that is, great books by gardeners who are in love with growing things. I came across this book in an after holiday sale and snapped it up-- oh, boy! I just love pouring over the pages and pages of garden wisdom and beautiful pictures here! While some of the advice isn't suited to my climate, someone in a more norther/temperate zone will find a wealth of info here. And ANYONE who loves edible gardening will enjoy reading this.
How to Make a Basic Bay Salve
Add 1 cup of olive oil and 3 oz of crushed bay leaves to a pot, and bring to a bare simmer. Leave it just on the edge of simmering on the stove for about 20 minutes.
In another pan melt ½ oz of natural beeswax. Pour it into the olive oil and herbs mixing well. Add 1/8 tsp of vitamin E oil.
Dip a spoon or popcicle stick into the mixture, and put it in a cup in the fridge for about 3 minutes (put it so the dipped side is up). Take it out and touch it. If it’s hard, add a bit more olive oil to the mixture. If it’s still very soft, add a spoonful or two more beeswax. Try the fridge test again until you get the perect consistency of a thick, spreadable lotion.
Strain the mixture while it’s still hot and runny. Discard the leaves and pour the salve into a jar. It’ll last a couple of weeks—longer if you refrigerate it. Great to keep on hand in the summer for bug bite season.
Medicinal Uses of Bay
*IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO READ: DO NOT take the following as medical advice. I am simply providing information about how herbs have been used medicinally, both in ancient and modern times, for those interested in herbalism. I may even relay my own experiences but I DO NOT RECOMMEND that YOU use any herbal remedies without first consulting a qualified professional. Please remember that even common culinary herbs can be dangerous when taken in quantities that exceed normal food seasoning.
Warning: Bay is generally considered safe, since it’s so widely used in cooking—using it beyond normal culinary consumption may pose problems. Some people can have laurus allergies, and contact with bay can result in dermatitis or asthma. Taking bay in excess internally DOES interact with some drugs, and it’s not known how safe bay in excess is for pregnant and nursing mothers.
While it’s a generally safe kitchen herb, as always, check with a health care specialist who is qualified to treat with herbs before treating yourself with bay.
Most ailments treated by taking bay internally need to be looked after by a doctor anyway. Bay bark tea is used for internal organ ailments, such as the kidneys, bladder, spleen, pancreas and liver. Tea of bark and berries alleviate gas, helps with stones and bowel issues.
Tea from the berries has been used for when women have reproductive tract issues with the womb or menstruation, and women in childbirth were sometimes given it to help expel the baby and the afterbirth. Berry can also be used in teas to treat cold and flu-like illnesses, can be gargled with it to help an inflamed, swollen throat.
Externally, bay is excellent to ease the pain of any nasty bug bites or stings. The best way to use it is to make a salve out of the leaves and apply it liberally to the area several times per day.
How to Fire Scry
Scrying is an ancient art in which you peer into something (most often a crystal ball, but sometimes a scrying mirror) in a meditative state to promote visions. Some people prefer to scry into fire flames.
Build a fire- safely, of course! This can be in a fireplace, barbecue, or campfire. Do this at night-- and if indoors, turn off all the lights so that the fire is the only source of illumination. Make sure to get it blazing so it will keep burning for 30 minutes or more.
Sit and relax yourself. Get into a meditative state.
Throw a handful of herbs or incense on the fire that promote psychic awareness. Bay is ideal!
Gaze at the fire and soften your vision. Go deeper into your meditation, keeping your eyes fixed on the flames. Wait and see what comes to you. You probably won't see a vision in the flames-- you might but for most of us the flames won't act as a movie screen. Rather you'll get images coming to your mind, or emotions and gut feelings may emerge.
Don't forget to write down your experiences!
Magical Uses for Bay
Bay is ideal for teas, incense or potions to aid in psychic abilities or visions (please see health warning above before using bay).
Throw a handful of bay into the fire when fire scrying.
To quote Culpeper again, "neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightning, will hurt a man where a bay tree is.” Its long been considered a protective herb, used to ward off malevolent energy or break curses. If you feel out of sorts and think it’s due to a curse, add a bay infusion to the bathwater, and sprinkle crushed bay across the thresholds and windowsills. See if you feel any better. If you do, fume yourself with an incense mixture of sandalwood and bay and you will be cleansed and purified.
Are mischievous spirits about? Hang bunches of bay in the rooms where they’re giving you trouble to quell those pesky beings.
Sprigs of bay make fine aspergils- just bunch them up and dip them in blessed or holy water, then sprinkle it all around for purification of any space.
If you are an athlete, keep a few bay leaves on you to boost your performance levels when you compete. They are especially known to give wrestlers strength.
Use bay in your Winter Solstice celebration décor. Also decorate your altar any time of the year with bay wreaths and sprigs if you worship the Greek and Roman Gods. It is particularly sacred to the God Apollo. The Greek word for bay is Dahpni, and this is the name of a nymph that Apollo was in love (or perhaps lust) with. So she got Gaea to change her into a tree—a Laurus nobilis to be precise!
More Recommended Reading:
This is another 'garden porn' type book for people who just relish reading about well loved, well tended gardens. Great great GREAT tips here for dealing with warm climates, from the very hot & dry to the very hot & humid.
More Bay Resources:
Culpepers Complete Herbal - online version (pubic domain)
The Complete Gardener by Monte Don - great for those in temperate/cool regions (Monte Don is in the UK and host of the BBC's "Gardener's World" show).
Southern Herb Growing by Madalene Hill, Gwen Barclay and Jean Hardy -- this one is for southern or warm climate gardeners like myself!
Healthline - What Is Bay Leaf? (Medicinal Information)
© 2014 Mackenzie Sage Wright