Eating a bay leaf

Contents

Can you eat bay leaves?

Bay leaves are well-known for a couple of reasons — the flavor they impart to your favorite dishes and the fact that you should discard the bay leaves before serving your friends or family. If you forget to extract said leaf from your pot of stew, though, are you in danger if you accidentally eat it? Are bay leaves safe to eat, or are they toxic?

Parents everywhere have warned their kids to not eat the bay leaf floating in their soup because they’re poisonous, but that’s just a myth (via MySpicer). These flavorful leaves physically resemble a couple of other plants whose leaves are very similar to bay leaves — both mountain laurel and cherry laurel leaves look similar and they are toxic for both humans and animals. It’s thought that this similar appearance prompted the myth, but it has no basis in fact.

While bay leaves aren’t poisonous, though, you still don’t want to eat them. Serious Eats writes that even after simmering in a pot for hours (even in a slow cooker that’s been on all day), the bay leaf doesn’t become supple and tender over time like everything else you’ve probably already added to the pot. Instead, it remains hard, rigid, and pointy. If you accidentally eat it, it can be sharp enough to scratch your mouth or your esophagus, and if you’re unlucky enough, you can actually choke on them. You also don’t want to break them up before adding to your stew, either, because it will be even more difficult to dig out a bunch of tiny, sharp shards before enjoying your meal.

You can buy ground bay leaves (which even further dispels that myth that they’re poisonous), but those in the know say that it needs to be a very fine powder, and a little bit goes a long way as it will release far more flavor in this fashion than in the whole leaf state. This means it can be easy to overpower your soup instead of enhance it.

Everything You Need to Know About Bay Leaves

Ah, bay leaves: the source of much debate. Do they add unparalleled flavor to food as pots bubble and boil, or are they just weird plants sent to ruin our lunch? Honestly, it’s somewhere in between. A stew without bay leaves will not taste like it’s missing something, yet there’s no denying that when a leaf or two is included, some kind of something happens.

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Typically added to slow-cooking dishes from massaman curry to duck confit, bay leaves emit a more palatable gradation of flavor the longer they simmer. While a bay leaf isn’t as powerful as a much-needed pinch of salt or squeeze of lemon, it is not as inconsequential as some adamantly believe.

Fresh vs. Dry

Although it may seem counterintuitive in herb language, dry bay leaves are the way to go. The majority of fresh bay leaves available in the United States are native to California, while most dried varieties are imported from Europe, mainly Turkey. Whether dried or fresh, Turkish bay leaves’ milder flavor can round out the flavor of a dish over time, whereas potent American bay leaves can quickly overpower a dish.

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Are They Edible?

Unlike tender herbs like parsley or cilantro, which taste delightful sprinkled on a dish at the last minute, gnawing on bay leaves isn’t recommended. Because bay leaves are related to mountain laurel and cherry laurel, they’re often mischaracterized as poisonous, but that’s not actually the case. However, even after simmering in liquid for hours, the brittle leaves won’t break down, and pointy shards of a broken bay leaf can cause choking or even slice areas of the digestive tract.

Don’t freak out; there are a few ways to avoid a trip to the emergency room during your dinner date. First, and simplest: Keep an eye on the bay leaves in your dish as it cooks and remove them before serving. Another option is to tie the leaves into a neat package, known in classic French cuisine as a bouquet garni. A packet of herbs tied together with twine or wrapped in cheesecloth is easy to locate and fish out after cooking, thus eliminating any chance of biting into a bay leaf. Finally, bay leaves can be ground into a nontoxic powder that doesn’t need to be removed from a dish.

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Bay Leaf Substitutes

With a scent falling somewhere in between eucalyptus oil and the air of a French-Italian fusion restaurant, there is no way to perfectly emulate the herbal flavor of bay leaves. While you can simply omit the addition of a bay leaf, the closest match to the herb is a mixture of dried thyme and oregano; a quarter teaspoon per leaf gets the job done.

How to Store Them

If you’ve decided to fully ignore what was just explained about the herb and use fresh bay leaves, they should be stored in the refrigerator and used within a week, like most other leafy produce. Dried bay leaves can be stored in a cool, dry place along with the rest of your spices and herbs. However, the best way to hold onto bay leaves’ potency in flavor is to store the leaves in the freezer, where they will stay fresh for years.

The other night I made a buttermilk broccoli soup for dinner. But, right after I’d pureed the soup in my Vitamix, I realized that I hadn’t taken out the bay leaf! I panicked. I’ve been trying to teach my girls how to cook simultaneously while I cook the main part of the meal. Having conversations and cooking can often get mixed up in my head and it’s hard to keep track of ingredients once in a while.
I sent the kids out of the room while I tried to recover and figure out what to do. There wasn’t time to cook anything new before dinner. Otherwise we were going to end up eating at 8:00 p.m.! I looked online for information and to try and figure out if we could eat the soup or not. Here’s what I discovered…
The bay leaves we cook with aren’t actually poisonous unless they’re consumed in large amounts. There is ground bay leaf in Old Bay Seasoning actually. Some people can react to bay leaf and have stomach aches. The biggest reason why is that bay leaves are tough in cooking and they usually don’t puree very well. The rough edges of the leaves can tear you up inside. In my case, there was no trace of the leaf to be seen. It pureed so well. I couldn’t pick out any pieces, because there weren’t any to be picked out.
I called my mom and another gal I knew to ask their opinions. Both had never made the mistake I did, but both thought it would be fine. So, we ate the soup. And we were indeed fine. Thankfully. I’m going to try and remember in the future though. The bay leaf did give the soup a much stronger flavor when it was pureed and my kids ate it, but didn’t care for it.
So, in case this ever happens to you–toxicologists did agree on everything I read on the internet that bay leaves aren’t poisonous. But, the flavor is very strong and you wouldn’t want to eat one if you happen to see one in some soup you’re about to eat.

Learn more about the Laurel flowers and you might just understand why one of these types was made the state flower of Pennsylvania.

One type of the laurel flowers, the mountain laurel, is the chosen state flower of Pennsylvania since the 1930s. It’s not actually a flower but an evergreen shrub that can grow 6-10 feet tall crowned with an umbrella of red, pink or white blooms. Native Americans made spoons out of the bark of the mountain laurel. Thus, the spoons were called “spoon wood.”

Mountain laurel flowers are related to the rhododendron and originated in Europe. It was introduced as an ornamental plant in the America during the 18th century.

Types

California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica)

Growing from 2 to 16 feet high, this laurel is native to the mountains of Oregon and California. Hardy in zones 7-10, it thrives in full or partial sun, and it produces small yellow flowers in the Spring. It can be either a tree or a shrub, and it has fragrant, lance-shaped leaves that can be used instead of sweet bay leaves, producing a much stronger flavor.

This plant can get quite large – up to 20 feet high and 40 feet in width, which is why it is sometimes used as a privacy screen by training it to grow on more than one trunk. It blooms in the Spring and has white flowers that are sometimes difficult to see, just like the Cherry laurel, but unlike this plant, the Carolina Cherry laurel is drought-tolerant and therefore thrives in dry soils.

Caucasica (Prunus laurocerasus)

A fast-growing plant, the Caucasica prefers full sun or partial shade and soil that is moist but well-drained. It grows a little faster than other laurels, and it maintains its beautiful dark-green color throughout the Winter, which means it will boast a beautiful color all year long. It produces white flowers in the Spring and red berries in the Fall, which the birds will love.

Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

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Also known as the English Laurel, this is a hardy laurel that is very popular in the southern part of the United States. Best when grown in full sun and moist but well-drained soil, the Cherry Laurel has small white flowers that are sometimes hidden behind its leaves, which are broad, leathery, and can get up to 5 inches long and 2 inches wide. A spring-blooming shrub, this laurel produces tiny black berries in the Fall.

Crotonifolia (Aucuba japonica)

A type of spotted laurel, it prefers the shade over bright sun and has dark-green leaves with large patches of gold. These types of laurels have either male or female flowers, and the male flowers that are deep-purple in color.

Elf Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

Best when grown in zones 5-9, this laurel is a dwarf plant that only gets up to 3 feet tall and 4 feet in width. It has large pink buds that open up to nearly white flowers, and it is the first dwarf mountain laurel to be introduced.

Etna (Prunus laurocerasus)

A very dense evergreen, the Etna has dark, glossy foliage that is an orange-bronze color when brand new. It prefers full sun or partial shade, and one of its advantages is that it can be grown in a variety of soils, including soil that is chalky or has clay in it. It gets spikes of creamy-white flowers in the Spring and glossy black berries in the Fall, making it an attractive plant all year long.

Golden King (Aucuba japonica)

This variety is very similar to the Crotonifolia, because it has male flowers and patches of gold on its dark-green leaves. It prefers the shade and not full sun, and it has very large, attractive leaves.

Compared to other laurels, this one is considered small, growing up to a maximum of 12 feet in height. It is a narrow evergreen tree that has dark-green, wavy leaves and tiny, insignificant flowers. If you take its fragrant leaves and dry them out, you can use them as a spice, and it prefers full sun and rich, moist soil that is also well-drained. It is hardy and easy to grow, and many people grow them just for the sweet bay laurel herb it can produce.

Little Linda

A dwarf variety, this laurel grows no higher than 3 feet, and has soft-pink buds that open to flowers in a beautiful shade of pink. It also has large, dark-green leaves that are spot-resistant and therefore beautiful all year long.

Maculata (Aucuba japonica)

Also called the Variegata, this type of laurel has female flowers and leaves that are green but have large yellow speckles on them. It is a round evergreen shrub with beautiful large leaves that are certain to catch your attention.

Minuet Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

This shrub has light-pink buds and pink flowers that have a beautiful red band on them. Growing up to 3 feet high and 3 feet wide, it does best when grown in zones 5-9.

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Native to the United States, this laurel has very showy flowers and gets to 15 feet in height. It does better in acidic soil and the flowers are either white, pink, or red in color. They are often planted with azaleas and rhododendrons, because like the latter, the Mountain laurel has the same care requirements, and even looks a lot like rhododendrons. They grow naturally along streams and on rocky streams.

Olympic Fire Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

Best when grown in zones 5-9, this type of laurel has beautiful red-pink buds that open to flowers which are dark-pink in color. It is one of the largest mountain laurels, growing up to 10 feet high and 10 feet in width, making it quite striking.

Ostbo Red

Native to the Northwest, this one has red buds that open up to pink flowers and a hardiness that can tolerate more sun than other varieties. It has wavy leaves that are smaller than other types, as well as the ability to grow up to 6 feet high, sometimes taller as it ages.

Otto Luyken Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

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Growing up to 4 feet in height and 6 feet wide, this type of laurel is shade-tolerant and prefers moist but well-drained soil. It is a low-maintenance shrub that makes a perfect low hedge or background shrub. They can also be used a low foot-traffic barrier, and it has beautiful leaves that stand out among other plants.

Peppermint Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

The flowers on this laurel are unique because they are white in color and contain dark-red streaks that run through each petal. It grows up to 10 feet high and 10 feet wide, and it thrives best in zones 5-9.

Although a hardy species, the Portugal laurel is also slow-growing. It grows up to 30 feet in height and is a dense bush, but it is also able to survive pollution, wind, and drought. Often trained to grow on one trunk just like a regular tree, this type of laurel blooms in early-Summer with white, spiky flowers that can get up to 10 inches long. Its berries, which appear later on, range in color from bright-red to dark-purple, so it is a striking, eye-catching plant.

Purple Leaf Sandcherry (Prunus x cistena)

This plant has gorgeous purple-red leaves and is very hardy, holding their color all summer long. It can grow easily in all conditions, even in colder areas, and it grows up to 10 feet high and 8 feet in width.

Rozannie (Aucuba japonica)

This type of laurel is one of the few varieties with both male and female flowers on the same plant. It is a dwarf variety with dark-green leaves and no variegation. In late-Autumn and Winter, red berries appear that are quite large and very attractive.

Schipka Laurel

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A very cold-hardy shrub, it is perfect for people living in colder parts of the country, and it can grow up to 15 feet tall. If you prune it, you can make it shorter, which some people prefer, and because it is adaptable, the Schipka laurel grows well either full sun or partial shade.

Snowdrift Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

If you’re looking for something that boasts of pure-white flowers, this is a plant you should consider. It has shiny, dark-green leaves and bright-white flowers that are nothing short of stunning. Like other mountain laurels, this one does best in zones 5-9 and grows up to 10 feet high and 10 feet in width.

Spurge Laurel (Daphne laureola)

This is a small evergreen shrub that has beautiful green flowers and striking black berries. It is found on limestone in old woodlands and is loved because of its matching leaves and flowers.

Tinkerbell Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

Like its name implies, this is a dwarf laurel that grows up to 3 feet high and 3 feet wide. It does best in zones 5-9, and it grows buds that are deep-pink in color and which reveal rich pink flowers when open.

Interesting Facts about the Laurel Shrubs

  • The English Laurel has been around since the 1500s, making it one of the world’s oldest plants. The sweet fragrance of the flowers impressed a Swiss researcher, and since that day the flowers have been used for a variety of floral arrangements, including corsages and bridal bouquets. The laurel has both a wonderful fragrance and intense beauty, so its history is not surprising.
  • Laurel water is a popular drink and is made from the distilled leaves of the plant, and it can also be used as an addition to some foods, giving the foods a flavor like sweet almond.
  • Many companies use the laurel’s leaves and fruit to make dyes for certain fabrics. They start by heating the ingredients, ending up with a perfect dye that comes in many different colors.
  • In Greek and Roman cultures, laurel leaves were often worn in wreaths as a sign of victory. They were also used in wreaths that were worn by those who have attained the highest status in the country. In addition, the wreaths have been awarded to winners of certain games and contests; for instance, even today the wreaths are given to Grand Prix winners.
  • Laurel leaves were once thought to inspire creativity and therefore, they were placed under the pillows of people who needed to be creative for their jobs or hobbies. It is thought that laurel leaves help a person come up with ideas quickly, and it all starts with placing the leaves underneath that person’s pillow.
  • The words “laureate” and “baccalaureate” derive from the significance of the laurel leaves, and even today many colleges award college graduates with a laurel wreath to reward them for their achievements.

Why Choose the Laurel Plants?

  • Many of these shrubs are very tolerant of both wet and dry conditions, as well as both warm and cold temperatures. In fact, many of them can be grown anywhere except in places where the soil is chalky or waterlogged, making them a very versatile and popular plant.
  • Fast-growing and with leaves a beautiful shade of green, most laurels give your yard a very elegant look that is attractive to your visitors. They also do a great job of creating a type of privacy screen to shield your yard from passersby.
  • The laurel has beautiful, shiny-green leaves that produce two major effects: first, the look is very aesthetically pleasing, and second, the leaves can actually reflect sunshine and make your yard warmer, which can be a real lifesaver during the cold winter months.
  • Most varieties are very low-maintenance, which means you never have to worry about the shape or size of the shrub getting out of hand or too bushy and shaggy. In fact, most of the species require only once-a-year pruning, and after that you’re on your way to having a hedge that is beautiful and perfectly shaped.
  • If you live near a busy street or near a highway, the laurel plants can actually eliminate some of the noise from those areas, making your home a lot quieter in the end.
  • Some of the varieties have a sweet fragrance and are very attractive to bees, and the berries – whether red, black, or some other color – have a taste and an appearance that are attractive to birds, making this a plant that will draw in all the right animals.
  • One of its main advantages is that there are both regular and dwarf varieties, which means regardless of the size hedge you are looking for, you can easily get it by choosing a laurel hedge.

Home Stratosphere is an award-winning home and garden online publication that’s a result of our talented researchers and writers who work directly with hundreds of professional interior designers, furniture designers, landscape designers and architects from around the world to create helpful, informative, entertaining and inspiring articles and design galleries.

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Laurel trees are a unique specimen. Unlike some species, not all trees that share the name “Laurel” belong to the same family. English Laurel, often referred to as Cherry Laurel, is a large evergreen shrub or small tree. The tree is popular with homeowners looking for attractive foliage to use as a hedge or driveway border. It belongs to the genus Prunus and is not related to the true Laurel which belongs to the genus Laurus nobilis.

Appearance of the Tree

English Laurel gets its name from its resemblance to the true Laurel tree, but it is actually related to the cherry tree family. The bushy-looking tree can grow up to 30 feet tall and sport an even wider canopy of leaves.

Reviewing the tree’s main characteristics provides insight into its distinctive appearance:

  • Leaves: The tree’s shiny oblong leaves range from three to six inches long. The topsides of the leaves are leathery and dark green while the undersides are light green.
  • Flowers: In late spring the English Laurel is covered with fragrant, white cup-shaped flowers.

  • Fruit: Tiny half-inch long cherry-like fruits form on the tree in clusters. The fruit’s color ranges from dark purple to black.

The dense tree is fast-growing and can rapidly reach 20 feet if it is not pruned regularly.

Laurel Tree Types

There is only one type of English Laurel or Prunus laurocerasus, which is commonly used as an attractive green border for homes and other buildings. However, there are three other popular types of Prunus varieties that are also popular landscaping picks:

  • Prunus Schipkaensis: This columnar plant grows to 10 feet and is typically referred to as the “Dwarf Laurel.”
  • Prunus Caroliniana: Also known as the Poisonous Cherry Laurel, the tree’s leaves and branches contain cyanide. Since this type of Prunus contains poison, it is not recommended that you plant the tree near children’s play areas.
  • Prunus Lusitanica: Better known as “Portuguese Laurel,” it is a small poison-free tree whose leaves have a red tint. The tree makes for an ideal hedge as it responds well to pruning.

Most types of Prunus are very hardy and can withstand below freezing temperatures.

The Many Looks of the Laurel Tree

Where the Laurel Grows

The English Laurel is native to southwestern Asia and southeastern Europe; however, over time the tree has expanded to North America and other parts of the world, including Iran. In the United States, the species is especially prevalent in the Pacific Northwest, specifically Washington, Oregon, and northern California.

While the tree is tolerant of shade, it is vital that it is placed in an area that experiences full sun for at least part of the day, especially in colder climates. In addition, the English Laurel grows best in slightly acidic soil that is watered regularly.

Popular Uses

While the tree may be small in stature, its size does not reduce its value. The English Laurel features several popular uses, including:

  • Flavor: Laurel water, which is made from the distillation of the tree’s leaves, is often used as an almond flavoring.
  • Dye: The tree’s leaves and fruit can be heated to produce a dye for fabrics.
  • Floral Arrangements: The tree’s flowers are prized by florists for their fragrance and beauty. In addition, English Laurel leaves are often added to floral arrangements to add volume.

The English Laurel is especially popular in Europe where it has been grown as an ornamental hedge for more than 400 years.

Interesting Facts

The English Laurel is deeply rooted in history having been around since the 1500s. The original species was discovered by a Swiss researcher who wrote at great length about the intense fragrance of the tree’s flowers. To this day, the English Laurel’s blossoms are used extensively in floral arrangements, from bridal bouquets to standard corsages.

The tree’s popularity in the United States was affected in the late 1990s when it was found invading urban parks and forests in and around Seattle, Washington. Due to its hardiness and rapid growth when exposed to cool temperatures and moist soil, Seattle’s city administrators were forced to selectively reduce the tree’s population in order to avoid the invasive species from overtaking green spaces.

Laurel Diseases

Despite its resistance to many environmental factors, including freezing cold temperatures, the English Laurel is susceptible to a number of diseases, including:

  • Phytophthora ramorum: This fungal infection first appears on the tips of the tree’s leaves. The disease creates a yellow outline on the leaf tip before turning the entire leaf brown, black and then gray. As the leaves die, the disease can spread to the tree’s branches.
  • Powdery Mildew: This is a common disease among English Laurel. White, powdery spores infect surfaces of the tree’s leaves, but can spread to the flowers and fruit. In addition, the fungi can spread from plant to plant very rapidly if not addressed in the early stages.
  • Root Rot: The fungi infect the roots or crowns of the tree and cause the leaves to become discolored and drop prematurely. The tree may also form cankers which ooze black or reddish sap.

In addition to these diseases, English Laurels are also the target of pests, including spider mites, aphids, and bark beetles.

Laurel Care

English Laurel is a landscaper’s dream foliage for hedges and other ornamental foliage. However, it can be a homeowner’s nightmare if he doesn’t have time to prune the tree on a regular basis. When selecting the English Laurel to add to your property it’s important to consider how fast it grows and how often you will have to prune it.

Other tips to consider before selecting the fragrant tree as potential border plant include:

  • Roots: The English Laurel has an extensive root system. Consequently, it should not be planted near buildings or sewer lines. Ideally, the trees should be planted four feet apart from one another.
  • Watering: The tree grows best in moist, well-drained soil; however, it can die if placed in soil that is watered too frequently.
  • Pruning: To control larger trees, you may need the help of a chainsaw, as the tree’s branches are hardy and grow back very quickly.
  • Fertilizer: It isn’t really necessary to fertilize Laurel trees to encourage growth. However, if you decide your tree is in need of it, select a slow-release fertilizer made specifically for plants that thrive in acidic soils.

Growing Laurel Trees

You have many choices of the type of laurel tree you grow. This versatile tree can be used in landscaping for a border, hedge or ornamental foliage.

Types of Flower Laurels

laurel blossom image by Alison Bowden from Fotolia.com

Laurels are flowering, evergreen shrubs. They are often used as hedges, as the attraction is in the broad, evergreen leaves rather than the somewhat insignificant flowers. Depending on the species, laurels can range in size from a small bush to a towering tree, such as the sweet bay laurel. Many types of laurel are poisonous, according to horticulturists at West Virginia University. For that reason, they should not be grown where livestock graze.

Cherry Laurel or English Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

This laurel is popular in the southern part of the United States, where it thrives in the full sun common in the region. The cherry laurel prefers moist, rich soil that is well drained. The plant is one of the hardier laurels, but avoid watering it from above nor leave it sitting in standing water. The cherry laurel is very fast-growing and can also tolerate heavy pruning.

If left unpruned, this shrub can get up to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. The leaves average 5 inches in length, and between 1 to 2 inches wide. The cherry laurel is a spring-blooming shrub, but the white flowers are often hidden behind the broad, leathery leaves. In the fall, the plant produces tiny black berries.

Carolina Cherry Laurel (Prunus caroliniana)

This laurel is also called a cherry laurel, but it is most often grown as a wide tree. The plant can get up to 20 feet high with a spread twice as large as its height. For that reason, it is commonly trained to grow on several trunks and used as a privacy screen. The Carolina cherry is very drought tolerant and will thrive in drier soils than the cherry laurel. Like the cherry laurel, it blooms in the spring with white flowers that are sometimes hard to see.

Portugal Laurel (Prunus lusitanica)

The Portugal laurel a slow-growing species, but it is also extremely hardy. The dense bush is able to survive wind, pollution and drought. The Portugal laurel can grow up to 30 feet tall and is often trained to grow on one trunk like a tree. This laurel blooms in early summer, with white flowers arranged in spikes that can be as long as 10 inches. The berries are small and range in color from dark purple to bright red.

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

The mountain laurel is native to the United States and has showy flowers, unlike many other laurels. It is a slow-growing shrub that will grow to about 15 feet tall, with an equal spread. This plant grows best on acidic soil, and features white, red or pink flowers, depending on the cultivar. The mountain laurel is commonly found growing in the wild on rocky slopes or along streams. The flowers look similar to those of the rhododendron, and the care requirements are the same as rhododendrons. For those reasons, they are often planted with azaleas and rhododendrons.

Laurel or Sweet Bay (Laurus nobilis)

This laurel is usually grown as a small (maximum height of 12 feet), narrow, evergreen tree. The attractive, dark-green leaves have wavy edges. The flowers are tiny and insignificant. The fragrant leaves of the sweet bay laurel are often dried and used as a spice. Plant this slow-growing laurel in full sun and rich, well-draining soil.

Are Bay Leaves Dangerous to Eat?

I remember learning as a child that under no uncertain terms should I eat a bay leaf. They were considered to be dangerous to eat because they were very toxic. I came to believe that this was the reason people cooked with a whole bay leaf and then fished it out of the stew or soup prior to serving.

So are bay leaves dangerous to eat?

Bay leaves are NOT dangerous to eat. This is an extremely common myth but holds no merit. It is believed that this myth began because there are leaves that look strikingly similar to the bay leaf (mountain laurel and cherry laurel leaves) that are poisonous to humans and animals.

A word of caution though, we do still recommend you fish that bay leaf out of your stew after preparation. The purpose of the bay leaf is to simmer in your soup to release added flavor and aroma. However, even after hours of cooking, the bay leaf remains very rigid and stiff. Swallowing a large piece could cause you to scratch your digestive tract or potentially (although rare) pose a choking hazard.

But don’t pass on adding the bay leaf to your next soup, stew, chili or stock because you don’t want to fish it out. You will most certainly find that adding the bay leaf will add a delicious, deeper finish to each bite.

Are Some Bay Leaves Toxic – Learn Which Bay Trees Are Edible

Bay tree (Laurus nobilis), also known by various names such as bay laurel, sweet bay, Grecian laurel or true laurel, is appreciated for the aromatic leaves that add a distinctive flavor to a variety of hot dishes. However, this delightful Mediterranean tree has a reputation for being toxic. What’s the real truth about bay leaves? Are they poisonous? Which bay trees are edible? Can you cook with all bay leaves, or are some bay leaves toxic? Let’s explore the issue.

About Edible Bay Leaves

Are some bay leaves toxic? For starters, the leaves produced by Laurus nobilis are not toxic. However, certain species with the name “laurel” or “bay” may actually be poisonous and should be avoided, while others may be perfectly safe. Don’t take chances if you are uncertain. Limit cooking with bay leaves to those available in supermarkets or that you grow yourself.

Cooking with Bay Leaves

So which bay trees are edible? Actual bay leaves (Laurus nobilis) are safe, but the leathery leaves, which can be sharp on the edges, should always be removed from the dish before serving.

Additionally, the following “bay” plants are also considered safe. Like Laurus nobilis, all are within the Lauraceae family.

Indian bay leaf (Cinnamomum tamala), also known as Indian cassia or Malabar leaf, looks much like bay leaves, but the flavor and aroma are more akin to cinnamon. The leaves are often used as a garnish.

Mexican bay leaf (Litsea glaucescens) is often used in place of Laurus nobilis. The leaves are rich in essential oils.

California laurel (Umbellularia californica), also known as Oregon myrtle or pepperwood, is safe to use for culinary purposes, although the flavor is more pungent and intense than Laurus nobilis.

Non-Edible Bay Leaves

Beware of toxic bay-like trees. The following trees have toxic compounds and are not edible. They may have similar names and the leaves may look like regular bay leaves, but they belong to entirely different plant families and are completely unrelated to bay laurel.

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia): All parts of the plant are toxic. Even honey made from the blossoms can induce gastrointestinal pain if eaten in large amounts.

Cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus): All parts of the plants are toxic and may cause potentially fatal respiratory problems.

Note: Although bay laurel leaves are safe when used in small quantities, they may be toxic to horses, dogs and cats. Symptoms include diarrhea and vomiting.

Bay leaf: Should it stay or should it go?

Twisty Rye Breadsticks are flavored with a hint of bay. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

It sounds like the stuff of urban food myths, except the story’s true: Wife simmers a pot of spaghetti sauce with a dried bay leaf in it. She neglects to extract the brittle herb before dinner is served. Husband swallows the leaf and chokes on it, prompting a 911 call. (He survives; eventually, the marriage does not.)

“Gosh, it must have been 38 years ago, but it’s not something you forget!” says Connecticut resident Ellyn Broden, who was living in Laurel, Md., at the time and had to take care of her neighbors’ children when their mother (the cook) and father (bay leaf victim) were whisked to the emergency room.

Bay leaves do not typically incite drama. In fact, the dried kind are dull green and inspire no agreed-upon description. Ask a home cook, and he or she might say a bay leaf is added for flavor, or as an aromatic. Others say, sure, they toss a bay leaf in when a recipe calls for it, but they can’t tell you why. The leaves have been described as “earthy,” “floral,” “minty,” “like cinnamon spice,” “subtle” and “assertive.” How can that be?

In part, because there are bay leaves, and there are bay laurel leaves.

For the record, the latter do have something to offer, provided they aren’t years old. Spice giant McCormick & Co. continues its R&D on the same Laurus nobilis that was prized for its culinary and medicinal uses thousands of years before the company claimed it as one of its top 25 products. It tests them in mashed potatoes and chilis, glazes and simple syrups.

“Taste two plain tomato sauces side by side, one of them cooked with a bay leaf or two,” says Laurie Harrsen, McCormick’s director of consumer communications. “The difference it makes is amazing. It’s a ‘foundational’ flavor, a workhorse — not the star.”

There’s room in the kitchen to celebrate supporting players, surely. Still, the reviews are far from unanimous.

“I don’t use them. Never understood the magic,” says Kim O’Donnel. The Seattle food writer and former Washington Post blogger was taught in culinary school to use them in soups and sauces. A bay leaf is part of a classic bouquet garni. But it has been years since she was moved to do so.

“I didn’t notice any difference not having them in my food. I’d rather go with fresh thyme or oregano” for infusing, O’Donnel says. “Bay leaves have disappeared from my pantry.”

They may be receding from recommended use as well. Cookbook editor Paula Jacobson says they show up less frequently in the recipes she has tested in recent years, although she always keeps a jar of dried bay leaves on hand. When she spots one in an ingredient list, she says, she immediately scans the directions for the “discard” directive and inserts one if it isn’t there.

Serious Eats culinary director J. Kenji López-Alt appreciates bay leaf for its 50-plus flavor compounds and its “complex, tea-like aromas” after long cooking, he wrote in March in response to the site’s Food Lab query titled, “What’s the Point of Bay Leaves?” He emphasized that fresh and dried are not interchangeable, flavorwise. His advice: Stick with dried, and if you’re worried about forgetting to fish it out, use ground bay leaf instead.

The fresh bay leaves you find in cello-packs might have been grown in California, but they are bay laurel — not Umbellularia californica, which is sometimes called California bay and is not recommended for cooking.

Perhaps that’s why Julia Child was no fan of fresh bay leaves. As noted in “The Way to Cook” (1989), “California bay has, to me, a disagreeably strong and oily flavor.” One way to distinguish Umbelluaria californica from Laurus nobilis is the edges of their leaves; the former has a smooth edge, while the latter’s edge is wavy.

Then again, the flavor imparted by fresh bay leaves — the laurel kind — is most agreeable in the bay ice cream served seasonally at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore.

One of herb expert Susan Belsinger’s favorite uses for bay leaf is as an infusion in chocolate pudding. It proves the validity of Harrsen’s test of one-with, one-without: The background note of bay adds complexity and seems to enrich the chocolate flavor. It’s a nice recipe either way, but better with the bay leaf. Belsinger prefers cooking with fresh rather than dry leaves, and keeps them in an unsealed zip-top bag in the refrigerator for months.

Bay Leaf Rub. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)
Chocolate Pudding With Bay. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Maple Ave sous-chef and Burma native Nyinyi Mint has been known to serve soup at the Vienna, Va., restaurant with a fresh bay leaf or two in it. He’ll “grind or smash them a bit,” he says, to release their aroma. He learned to cook with fresh bay leaves from India. “We used them a lot in Southeast Asian cooking — in marinades and curries.”

Everyday cooks don’t need to worry about stocking a variety of bay leaves. Just cook with what you have on hand: most probably Turkish/Mediterranean/Greek bay laurel, bought at the grocery store.

“I’m not a gourmet, and I don’t do a perfect quarter-inch dice,” says Arlington resident Sue O’Brian. “But I throw bay leaves into the Indian food I make, and people who eat it think it’s pretty good.” The AARP research editor says bay leaf “ups the notch a little bit. . . . It adds a more pungent, herbal taste. I would notice it if it weren’t there.”

Dried West Indian bay leaves (Cinnamomum tamala) are veined a bit differently from bay laurel leaves and are closer to that cinnamon profile, aromatically. That might be why O’Brian combines the leaves with coffee in a cheesecloth sachet and adds it to her short-rib braise.

Why fish out the dried bay, then? Because the leaves don’t really break down during cooking. When eaten, they tend to end up as shards that can puncture the inside of a mouth or lodge in the throat. And bring a family meal to an abrupt and painful conclusion.

Questions about bay leaf? Susan Belsinger will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

More from Food:

6 ways to use bay leaf

Cooking With Bay Leaves: The Dos And Don’ts

Bay leaves infuse dishes with a woodsy flavor that also has subtle notes of eucalyptus and clove. Its flavor profile is bold but nuanced in a way that is difficult to replicate with any other herb or combination of herbs. Despite the fact that it is not as blatantly aggressive as some other seasonings, the bay leaf can make or destroy a dish depending on how well you use it. Follow these tips to use this herb effectively.

Do use bay leaves as a background note.

The traditional use of bay leaves is in support of the other flavors in a dish and this is certainly where it works best. Use it in dishes that also use more assertive seasonings like cumin or black pepper.

Do use dried bay leaves instead of fresh.

Like oregano, dried bay leaves can be pungent to the point of ruining dishes. Instead of trying to add a tiny portion of a fresh leaf, use the dried version instead. It is much easier to find and you can add a leaf or two to a dish without the risk of making a dish that is too bitter to eat. Note that the bay leaves that are sold dried and the ones that are sold fresh are usually harvested from two different types of trees, which is another reason for the difference in flavor. Most recipes that require bay leaves are written with the dried version in mind.

Do simmer your bay leaves.

There is little that distinguishes bay leaf that has not been cooked from any other leaf. It looks and smells like a generic dried leaf. That changes when you cook it in a liquid. Bay leaves are perfect for the latter part of the braising process. This is an herb that works best in dishes that are cooked for hours. A bay leaf or two can make a great addition to a soup or stew.

Do store your bay leaves in the freezer.

As a dried herb, bay leaves have a relatively long shelf life. They can last for months in an airtight container that is kept cool and away from light. You can extend that shelf life from months to years if you choose to freeze them instead.

Don’t serve a dish with bay leaves still in it.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t discard bay leaves because they are toxic. You do it because of how hard and fibrous they are. Bay leaves do not soften or break down, even after being cooked for a long time. They retain a texture similar to a fish bone. That texture makes this herb a choking hazard. If you cannot find the bay leaf in your dish, warn guests to look out for it.

Don’t overcook bay leaves.

Bay leaves are not one of those herbs where the flavor fades when it is cooked for a long time, Instead, what happens is that it will continue to infuse flavor into the dish and can make it bitter. To prevent this, taste your dish and remove the bay leaves once they have added your desired amount of flavor.

Don’t bother crushing or chopping bay leaves when adding them to a dish.

This does not affect the flavor that they release or the rate at which they release their flavor.

That said, not all bay leaves are created equally. Fresh bay leaves, which you can sometimes find in the produce section of the grocery store alongside the other fresh herbs, are going to be a lot more pungent than the dried ones you’ll find in the aisle with all the spices. And the dried ones you’ll find at the store are probably going to be a whole lot more flavorful than the five-year-old ones that are kicking around in your spice drawer. The moral of this story? If a recipe calls for dried bay leaves, and you happen upon some freshies, you can use fewer of them and get the same impact. That, and if you can’t remember when you bought the jar you have at home right now, go ahead and throw those guys out and buy some new ones—they aren’t going to taste like much, and we don’t need them giving the elegant bay leaf a bad name.

People are stubborn. We are too. If you still have your doubts, take some (not ancient) bay leaves and boil them in a bit of water. Let the water cool, remove the bay leaves, and take a sip of that brew. You’ll get that bay leaf flavor. And guess what. That flavor doesn’t go away when the water changes to stock or broth. Just because you can’t see the foundation of a building, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Same goes for bay leaves. But don’t try to build a skyscraper on a foundation of herbs. That won’t work.

Now that you’re a believer, let’s make some chicken adobo:

Easiest Chicken Adobo

Sweet, salty, tangy, garlicky—what’s not to like? While many recipes for adobo call for painstakingly peeling and slicing more than a dozen garlic cloves, we found that cutting open a whole head of garlic and simmering it in the sauce achieves the same delicious effect in a fraction of the time. View Recipe

Dear Home Ec 101:
A friend told me that bay leaves are poisonous, and that’s why you remove them before serving. Isn’t it kind of…insane to cook with a poison plant? If they are ok, would you tell me how to use bay leaves?
Signed,
Is it safe?

Bobbie says:

You know, that never made sense to me, either. My reasoning was “If it’s true, the poison gets into the food during the cooking process, so the removal of the leaf is a moot point. And if it’s not true – why are we supposed to remove it?” So, I finally looked into it, because I wanted to feel comfortable using them. And not die much.

Without getting into the technical terms I came across in my research (sesquiterpene lactone, anyone?) let me assure you that the bay leaves sold for cooking are not poisonous, and are perfectly fine to cook with. The herb commonly referred to as “bay leaf” comes from an evergreen shrub or tree (depending on where it’s grown) called bay laurel, also known as Laurus nobilis or sweet bay, and its leaves are non-toxic in reasonable quantities.

The confusion regarding whether or not bay leaves poisonous may come, in part, from the fact that other laurels are toxic, and the leaves look similar. If you aren’t 100000% certain the tree you want to pick a leaf from to toss into your stew is the right kind, then DON’T. Just stick with bay leaves sold for cooking and you’ll be fine.

Did you notice I said “reasonable quantities?” Too much of a good thing can be bad, and that includes bay leaves. Don’t worry though — in order to get a toxic effect from bay leaves, you’d need to eat at least several quarts of packed leaves. Who, in their right mind, is going to do that? (Of course, some people are allergic to certain plants, and should avoid them. That doesn’t mean they’re poisonous. My dad was allergic to basil. Very sad.)

Why should I “remove bay leaf” before serving?

Those leaves are tough!

Even all-day simmering in a soup or stew does not disintegrate or soften them. They’ll be leathery at best, and the edges can be a little sharp. Besides being downright unpleasant to swallow, a bay leaf can scratch your throat, stomach or intestines. In my research I found mentions in a medical journal of individuals who had inadvertently swallowed a whole bay leaf, which then became lodged in their digestive tract, causing extreme pain. The leaves had to be surgically removed. So…keep the leaves WHOLE when adding to the pot, and when removing, count to make sure you’ve gotten them all.

Do bay leaves really make a difference?

Yes. Next question.

Just kidding. Yesterday, I mentioned to a friend that I was going to write about bay leaves. She said she never understood the point of them, since the recipes always say to take them out anyway, so she’s always omitted them. As we talked, I tried to convey what she was missing, and by the time we parted ways, she was excited that I am going to bring her some of my stash when next we meet.

When I was newly married and teaching myself to cook things that didn’t require mixes, any attempt at making beef stew came out wrong. Not that it was horrible, but it didn’t taste like mom’s stew, which was simply the best I’d ever had. Same with vegetable soup, and pot roasts. They even smelled wrong when they were cooking. After talking with her, I figured out that what I’d been missing was the bay leaf. Like my friend, I’d dismissed them as not that big a deal, not realizing that they were the very thing that made the aroma of mom’s vegetable soup so comforting.

Yes, comforting. Relaxing. Soothing. I’ve even simmered a few bay leaves in a pot of water simply for the aroma. (Weird? Yeah, okay. I already know.) Give me that savory fragrance over a sweet, cloying candle or air freshener any day. But, as much as I love them, the words to describe the rich flavor that bay leaves bring to a dish elude me. It’s nothing overt. Subtle. Woodsy comes to mind. Slightly bitter. Pungent? And ever so slightly piney.

As the French say, it has a certain je ne sais quoi.* (Because they don’t know, either.)

Okay, fine….. so, what can I do with bay leaves?

How To Use Bay Leaves

There are tons of things you can do with bay leaves…here’s a few ideas to get you started. Even if your recipe doesn’t call for bay leaves, you can use them in:

Roast beast. Try Heather’s pot roast. Or try my standard method for beef or pork roasts: add 2 or 3 bay leaves (depending on size of roast), a few peppercorns, garlic, and onion. Then I add about ¼ cup of either white wine vinegar or the liquid from a jar of pepperoncini if I have some. Cook all day on low. Make a roux to thicken the juices that cook out to make gravy that will stun the diners. (Not like a phaser. A good stun.)

Stews of any kind: beef, pork, poultry, or vegetarian. Add at the beginning of cooking and let the long simmer add a depth to your favorite recipe.

Braising. Any meat that is cooked in liquid is fair game. Like Heather’s Beef Short Ribs. Or Chicken Bog. Oh, you MUST make this Wine Braised Pot Roast.

Stocks and soups. Add bay leaf when making stock. Bay leaf does wonders for anything tomato-based, including spaghetti sauce and chili. They’re in my pea soup recipe, which you’ve already tried, right?

Baked potatoes: cut scrubbed potato in half, put a bay leaf between the halves, reassemble and wrap in foil, then bake. The flavor permeates the potato flesh as it bakes. (Remove leaf, add butter or olive oil, salt, pepper as desired)

Making mashed potatoes? Add a leaf to the boiling water. Remove before mashing.

Add to any bean or lentil dish. Red beans and rice. Baked beans. Or add a couple leaves to the water when cooking dried beans.

Make pickled peppers, which are delicious on a roast beef sandwich, or served alongside pork or beef roast. These are a fresh pickle, not preserved. Pack sliced green peppers in a sterilized pint jar, along with 2 or 3 cloves of garlic (cut in half), 2 bay leaves, and ½ teaspoon salt. Fill jar with equal parts of boiling water and boiling vinegar. Seal and let cool, then refrigerate at least overnight before using. Store in refrigerator up to 2 weeks. (I first made this with distilled white vinegar, which was good, but it’s even better using white wine vinegar.)

Quick Beef and Cabbage skillet – Simple food, but I could eat this at least once a week, and my husband loves it too, even as reheated leftovers!

Did you know Old Bay Seasoning contains ground bay leaves? (I can’t stand the stuff, but I know some people who would still eat it even if it bay leaves were toxic.)

Do you have a favorite way to use bay leaves?

*translates to: “I don’t know what”

Bonus Points to anyone who caught my movie reference and can name the actor who said the line. You win the internet.

__________

Bobbie Laughman is an elder caregiver, writer and introvert who is bad at small talk, but occasionally gets on a soapbox about one thing or another, and feels embarassed about it when she comes to her senses. Contact her with questions or feedback at [email protected]

Can Dogs Eat Bay Leaves or Are They Poisonous?

Bay leaves do not just refer to the Laurus nobilis culinary herbs also known as bay laurel, bay tree, sweet bay, true laurel, laurel or Grecian laurel but also to the California, Indonesian, Indian, Mexican and West Indian bay leaf.

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This herb’s whole fresh leaf has a bitter or sharp pungent taste while if you dry it, its aroma and taste is floral, and it closely resembles that of oregano.

Finally, this herb is used in garnishing dishes as well as in various types of cooking including in soups, sauces, meat, stews, rice dishes, among many others while fresh or after being dried and ground.

Are they poisonous to dogs?

Yes, they are poisonous, i.e., bay laurel leaves are “toxic to dogs, toxic to cats, and toxic to horses” notes ASPCA. Why are they poisonous? The answer is simple. It is because these plant’s leaves have not only eugenol but also other toxic essential oils.

This is the same case of the species of plants where the bay leaf is obtained from common in various parts of the world since they also have various essential oils and eugenol.

While the Mountain and Cherry laurel share the name ‘laurel’, these two plants are ornamental plants and not used for culinary purposes. Additionally, they are also harmful to dogs including their berries if eaten in large quantities.

My dog ate bay leaf what will happen?

If your dog eats these culinary herb’s leaf, expect symptoms such as diarrhea, lethargy, vomiting, depression, among others. Also, if this pet consumed a large quantity of leaves, they can cause GI tract blockages.

Gastrointestinal tract blockages occur since this herb’s leaves are very tough and fibrous. Also, their sharp edges may also damage the GI tract.

The exact mechanism of toxicity of eugenol and some essential oils that this herb has on dogs have not been well studied. However, it is believed that they cause damage to liver cells and their surrounding tissues as they are being filtered through the liver. Remember these pets do not have enzymes to metabolize eugenol and some essential oils.

Conclusion

Since bay leaf poisonous dogs, avoid giving it to your canine friend. Also, if you cultivate it in your backyard garden or in pots, ensure you limit access to avoid this pet eating it.

In case your pooch eats it, look out of the various symptoms we have mentioned and inform your veterinary for diagnosis and treatment.

Finally, there is little information on the safety of laurel berries to dogs. Therefore, to be on the safe side, do not allow your pooch too much them.

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