I am never surprised when I sneak a peek at dinner simmering on the stove or in the crock pot to see a bay laurel leaf floating on top of the broth.
My husband, who does the majority of cooking at our house, has among his plant collection a rather large bay shrub. It is at least 10 years old, possibly older because I can't remember when I brought the then-small plant into the house. Fascinated by the fragrant leaves that season so many dishes, my husband quickly claimed the plant and has maintained it ever since. The shrub has gone from a small three-inch container to a large 14-inch pot that is heavy to carry around and needs its own plant stand when it comes into the house in winter.
Bay laurel grows quite large in the Mediterranean and Asia minor regions where it is believe to originate. In summer, my husband carries the potted plant outdoors to an area where it can get filtered sunlight. Twice that I can remember, the plant dropped every one of its leaves when it was forgotten and left to dry out. Both times, once watering began again, it quickly recovered and vigorously sprouted new leaves along its woody stems.
It is no wonder that the International Herb Association has named the bay laurel, or Laurus nobilis augustifolia, the 2009 Herb of the Year.
Particularly popular in Europe, the plant is believed to give relief from bronchitis and cough with a poultice made from the boiled leaves. Others believe rubbing the joints with the oil of bay laurel will relieve the pain of arthritis. Athletes and poets wore wreaths made from its the leaves to symbolize wisdom. It is from this practice that we get the term, ''poet laureate.''
In this country, however, we are more likely to toss a few leaves in the roasting pan with cuts of beef and tuberous vegetables. The flavor of bay laurel is outstanding when mingled with fresh rosemary and used to flavor roasted fall vegetables. Like the woody rosemary stems, the bay leaf is too brittle to eat and not that appetizing, so leaves should be picked out of the dish before serving.
It never surprises me when I open a foil-wrapped, steamed baking potato to find that my husband inserted a single bay leaf between the two halves of the vegetable's white flesh. The oils from the leaf permeate the potato giving it a hearty, savory flavor.
You can plant your bay laurel directly into the garden. It isn't very particular about soil, but adding a bit of organic matter never hurts. It doesn't mind full sun, but too much heat during midday in summer can burn its leaves, so a bit of protection is wise. It doesn't like drying out and should be kept somewhat moist but not muddy. Allowing it to dry out between waterings doesn't mean an emergency has occurred, but some leaf drop may occur.
While your shrub will grow quite well in the garden all summer, if you don't want to lose it, you must pot it up and bring it indoors for winter. Rather than risk bringing garden critters that cling to the roots of herbaceous plants, we prefer to leave our plant in the container year round, only repotting when it outgrows its container. Taking cuttings to clone new plants isn't an easy task, often taking up to a year to form roots. Bay laurel seeds aren't usually available commercially because the seeds are finicky, needing cool temperatures and complete darkness to germinate. Young plants are always available in spring from local garden centers and herb growers.
I am told the shrub produces fruit, although our plant has never bloomed, but there is good reason for this. Like our American holly, bay laurel is a dioecious plant, meaning individual plants have a specific sex. In order to get fruit from a bay shrub, you must have a male and a female plant in close proximity to each other.
In more moderate climates, the plant is an evergreen shrub that can grow more than 25 feet tall. We can't enjoy the plant permanently outdoors in our area, however, because it has shallow roots that are easily killed by the cold winds of winter. But that doesn't matter because one plant growing in a container in your sunny window can produce enough leaves to season just about anything you might be cooking.
The International Herb Association has already determined upcoming Herbs of the Year through 2015 and you can see what's coming next by going to their Web site at www.iherb.org. For more information about bay laurel, you can purchase a 156 page book, ''Celebrate Bay!'' compiled and edited by Susan Belsinger from the IHA Web site.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.