Kari Piecuch earned her master gardener certification in Washington state in 2016, but when she moved to Mobile, the following year, she began the intensive 14-week program all over again. “The flora is so different here,” Piecuch says. “It was worth repeating the training because the climate down here is such a contrast.”
Piecuch was soon growing all kinds of herbs in her garden and, one day on a whim, she bought a bay laurel tree from A Bloom Garden Center, her favorite local spot. A self-proclaimed “plant lady,” Piecuch often buys plants on impulse, a trait common in master gardeners who revel in collecting new and unusual specimens, resembling antique pickers.
Growing bay laurel, however, is not rare among locals, says Jack LeCroy, an extension agent who runs the master gardener program in Mobile and Baldwin counties. “It’s a popular plant on the Gulf Coast for sure,” he says.
Native to the Mediterranean, the bay laurel tree (Laurus nobilis) is most often grown for its leaves. It is easy to propagate and can be planted at any time of year, though it does best in cooler months, after the summer heat breaks, from fall to spring. Bay laurels prefer full sun but will tolerate partial shade, and like to be dry. Or as master gardeners say, “They don’t like wet feet.”
Though bay laurels can grow large, they grow so slowly that they typically remain shrub-sized. In fact, Piecuch notes that bay laurels are quite pretty, and can do the work of an ornamental, dignifying front yards. But she cautions against planting them too far from the house, so it remains easy to grab a few leaves when preparing those slow-cooked dishes that allow bay leaves, fresh or dried, to shine. Their flavor permeates soups, stews, chilis, Italian fare and especially … gumbo.
“You can’t make a good gumbo without bay leaves,” says MaryJo Broussard, whose current bay laurel is 30 years old. Broussard has “never lived any place where I didn’t have one.”
Bettie Champion also incorporates bay leaves in her seafood gumbo, using a recipe passed down from her mother, also a Mobile native. “My mama did it, and her mama did it, so I do it,” she says. “I think that’s where Southerners get a lot of our cooking traditions. They’re passed down in the family.”
Though not all gumbo cooks use bay leaves, they appear to be a staple of Cajun cuisine. Broussard makes it plain: “I’m a Cajun from South Louisiana. So I use bay leaves in gumbo.” She includes bay leaves in all manners of gumbo, though chicken and sausage is her favorite, and she admits to using more leaves than most people.
Terms such as “rich” and “earthy” describe the flavor bay leaves impart. It’s subtle, almost like umami, more of a full-bodied quality than a flavor. “It’s very unique,” says Broussard. “It tastes like earth. Not like dirt, but like earth. It almost tastes kind of green. If green were a flavor.”
To preserve the leaves, lay them out in a moisture-free area, such as a kitchen windowsill, for a day or two, then store them in a sealed container away from humidity and light.
“It tastes like earth. Not like dirt, but like earth. It almost tastes kind of green. If green were a flavor.” – MaryJo Broussard
All three cooks insist that dried bay leaves make lovely gifts. Piecuch enjoys giving them to her mother-in-law, a prodigious cook, and all of Champion’s supply comes from a friend with an aromatic tree in Destin, Florida. About once a year, Champion is gifted with a paper bag full of dried bay leaves. Broussard bags and ribbons them at the holidays to ensure her loved ones have enough stock to last through the winter.
TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS
Don’t leave the leaves.
Always remove bay leaves from any dish before serving. Their sharp edges can damage throats and stomachs.
Buy the right bay.
A few other plants have “bay” in the name, so confirm the scientific name (Laurus nobilis) to be sure you get the bay laurel.
Watch for wilt.
Laurel wilt disease is common among bay laurels, especially at 3 – 5 years of age. Fortunately, the plant will usually come back disease-free after being cut down.
Considering a bay laurel for your yard? Now is the time! Bay laurels are best planted on the Gulf Coast from October to April.
Put those bay leaves to good use and cook up your own pot of gumbo with this recipe!