By: Amy Grant
Sweet bay is an integral part of most of my soups and stews. This Mediterranean herb imparts a subtle flavor and boosts the flavor of other herbs. While not winter hardy, bay can be grown in a pot in colder zones which can be moved indoors during colder weather, meaning that almost everyone should be picking their own bay leaves; of course, you need to know when to pick them. Is there a specific bay leaf harvest time of year? The following article contains information on harvesting bay leaves, including when and how to harvest bay leaves.
Bay laurel is an evergreen shrub that grows in USDA zones 8 and above. Its attractive glossy, green leaves are the star attraction used dried in a variety of dishes, such as soups and stews. It is the key ingredient in Bouquet de garni, and is the signature herb in the well-known Old Bay Seasoning.
Once the plant is a couple of years old, you may begin picking bay leaves. Other than waiting a couple of years for the plant to mature, there is no set bay leaf harvest time; the leaves can be picked throughout the growing season as needed.
Select the largest leaves when harvesting bay leaves. Unlike other herbs that are at their peak when young and tender, bay leaf has a more intense flavor when older. As mentioned, bay leaves can be harvested during the growing season, but if you wish to harvest a bunch at one time, harvest in the midsummer when the leaves are at their peak in terms of essential oils, hence flavor.
Simply hand pick or snip off large, unblemished bay leaves for harvest. Line a baking sheet with paper towels and spread the leaves out. Or lay the leaves out singly, without overlapping, and dry on a piece of mesh screen.
Store bought dry bay is usually bone dry, but freshly dried leaves have a better, deeper flavor. Ideally, dry the leaves for between 48-72 hours. If you would rather have bone dry bay leaves, allow the leaves to dry for 2 weeks in a warm area that is out of direct sunlight.
Why are you drying the leaves? Fresh bay leaves tend to be rather bitter, and drying them tempers their bitterness. When dry, store bay leaves in an airtight jar of sealed plastic bag out of direct sunlight at a temperature between 65 and 70 F. (18-21 C.) for up to a year.
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Read more about Bay Trees
Laurus nobilis, or bay laurel, is a tall, perennial tree that grows to more than 12 feet high. Both the berries and leaves of the bay laurel serve a variety of purposes. Use dry bay leaves as a seasoning in spaghetti sauce and stews, as well as meat, fish and poultry dishes. Oil is extracted from the berries and used to make laurel oil, laurel soap, cosmetics and medicinal tinctures to treat ear aches, asthma and urinary ailments. Harvesting and preserving laurel bay berries in a few simple steps.
Herbs meant for drying must be gathered during warm, sunny days because they tend to produce more oils during this time of the year. It is not ideal to get them during rainy days. You should also pick them before their leaves begin to toughen up.
For bay leaves, you should pick them from plants that are at least two years old. The most ideal time to get them is in the morning after the dew has evaporated. Be gentle when picking them. Refrain from bruising or tearing the leaves. See to it that you also sort them out carefully. Remove any withered or dead leaves.
Then, you should quickly blanch them by dropping them into boiling water for a maximum of five seconds. This process allows them to dry more easily and quickly. If you do not have time to blanch, you should rinse the bay leaves under running water to remove any dust or dirt. Shake off excess water and pat them dry with a clean towel.
Drying is actually the oldest method of food preservation. It is also among the safest and easiest methods of preserving foods for later use. For bay leaves, you can do the following:
You can dry bay leaves naturally by leaving them in a room that is dry, low in humidity, and hot. The room should also be properly ventilated. It is not advisable to leave the bay leaves out in the sun because this can make them wilt and lose their flavor and aroma.
You can tie them up into small bunches using a thin string if you intend to hang them upside down to dry. However, it is better to dry them individually. Here is the step-by-step process on how to air dry your bay leaves:
After one week, flip the bay leaves over to make sure that both sides dry evenly. Leave them alone for another week.
After two weeks, you can gather the dried bay leaves. However, if you notice any dark green spots on them, you can leave them to dry for another week.
Using a food dehydrator is the easiest, fastest, and most ideal way to dry bay leaves. After you rinse them, you can place them on a dehydrator tray. Let them dry for one to four hours. Make sure to check them regularly as well. You can tell that they are dry when they break and crumble when bent. Here are the step-by-step instructions:
This is another great way to dry bay leaves. It allows them to dry individually. To dry bay leaves in the oven, simply follow these steps:
Drying bay leaves in a microwave oven is recommended if you only have a few pieces to dry. Even better, it only takes two to three minutes to achieve your desired results. Here are the step-by-step instructions for this method:
My first bay laurel tree was a tiny four-inch seedling from the nursery. I found out quickly that growing bay leaves is not at all difficult.
I put the pot in my herb garden where it got morning sun and afternoon shade. Before long, the little specimen outgrew the pot. Throughout the summer, I repotted it several times. By autumn, the bay tree had grown well over a foot with multiple branches.
Bay laurel, or Laurus nobilis, is what is known as “true bay.” This perennial, evergreen herb is in the Lauraceae plant family which also includes cinnamon and sassafras. Bay has been grown in the Mediterranean region for so long that when we think of bay, we associate it with the Mediterranean.
Bay leaf benefits are almost unlimited. From the culinary arena to medical research, bay is attracting the attention of cooks, medical professionals, and herbalists.
Fun Fact: The word “baccalaureate” has its roots in ancient Greece when bay laurel was used to crown and decorate athletes and persons of distinction. Turkey is one of the largest exporters of bay, and that’s how the nickname “Turkish bay” came about.
There are other varieties of bay, including California bay, Umbellularia californica. California bay is native to California and is in the same family as avocados. The difference between bay laurel and California bay is both visual and sensory. True bay has large, somewhat rounded pointed leaves and, when dried, has an herbal, slightly floral, eucalyptus-like flavor. California bay leaves are more pointed and slender, with a much stronger flavor.
When we were in Italy, I saw bay trees over 30-feet tall. Practically speaking, though, bay trees are grown either as a topiary or a large shrub.
The plant hardiness zones for bay are zones eight through 11.
In the Ground
No worries here. If your climate is agreeable, ordinary garden soil with good drainage will provide a happy home for your bay leaf tree year-round. Bay can tolerate full sun or part shade but doesn’t like soggy feet or excessively dry soils, so take that into account when watering.
Since I live in southwestern Ohio in Zone 6, I grow my bay trees in containers, and treat them as tender perennials, bringing them indoors when the temperature dips consistently to below 15 degrees. I follow Ron Wilson, the gardening expert’s advice for planting herbs in pots. I like half potting soil and half cactus soil, which allows for good drainage. Let the soil dry out between waterings. When the bay outgrows its current pot, go to the next size up.
Fertilize both in the ground and potted bays in spring and summer. For lush foliage, try a fertilizer that’s a little high in nitrogen.
That depends on you. I’m not fussy about pruning but will give my bay trees a light pruning when needed. And don’t toss the prunings away. Those leaves can be dried for culinary and household use.
It’s good to acclimate your bay tree gradually to the indoors. Around the end of September, put it in a shady place outdoors. By the end of October or November, depending upon the weather, give it one last good watering and take it inside to go dormant. Bay does well in a southern exposure with good air circulation. I keep mine in the lower level of the house, which stays about 50 degrees. No need to fertilize during winter indoors. Water infrequently.
As spring approaches, again acclimate the tree to going outside. Put it in a shady, protected place and gradually put the plant in a permanent outdoor location.
A bright, sunny spot with plenty of fresh air will keep your bay tree healthy. Let the soil dry between waterings. Mist the leaves occasionally. Don’t put the plant too close to a heat source. Fertilize in spring and summer.
I’ve tried growing bay leaves from both seeds and cuttings and found them to be difficult tasks, requiring the right environment and a lot of patience. Seeds take up to nine months to germinate, and cuttings taken from semi-hard stems take up to five months to root properly. If you’re adventurous, I say go for it. As for me, I’ll start with seedlings!
Give the leaf a tug, pulling downward. That way, you’ll get a clean break without damaging the stem.
Dry in a dehydrator or by hanging in bunches upside down, away from light and moisture. When leaves crinkle with your fingers, they’re dry. Store away from heat and light.
Bay trees aren’t usually bothered by diseases and pests, but once in a while, you may see a mealy bug or scale damage. Mealy bug damage makes the leaves look sooty, and sucking scale insects look like soft ovals that attach to the stem or leaf. A good horticultural oil spray will take care of both.
Bay is truly an herb with an ancient pedigree. Do you grow bay? Does your climate allow you to grow it outdoors all year? Join in the conversation below.