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Time to harvest a Carolina Bay wreath

Wreath of bay leaf branches woven into grape vine. Photo by Ken Moore

By Ken Moore

Back in the mid 1970s, UNC botany professor Dr. C. Ritchie Bell got an idea while teaching an Economic Botany class. In addition to teaching, Dr. Bell liked to cook, and he discovered that the leaves of a native plant were every bit as fine as those exotic bay leaves from California and the Mediterranean.

That plant, Carolina Red Bay or Swamp Bay, Persea borbonia, is an evergreen tree of the coastal plain from Virginia all the way to Louisiana.

So why not get smart and grow and harvest a North Carolina plant as a commercial crop? Dr. Bell packaged up numerous bundles of bay leaves and distributed them far and wide, hoping to initiate some action. Nothing happened.

Not long after Dr. Bell’s expressed enthusiasm, I was visiting down in the coastal plain and realized the cottage in which I was lodging was surrounded by a thicket of bay trees. Having recently seen California and Mediterranean bay leaf wreaths described in holiday catalogues at astounding prices, I decided to save the cost and make a couple of Carolina bay wreaths of wild grape vine stuffed with bay leaf branches. Though my wreaths were more free-form than those in the catalogues, they were good enough for me. Back home in Carrboro, I hung one inside and one outside. To my delight, those olive-green colored leaves slowly dried to a beautiful golden copper-brown and I found they could be used fresh or dried for flavoring in stews and other dishes.

I planted a couple of bay trees in my backyard, and every year about this time I cut most of the branches off those two trees to make bay leaf wreaths to share with friends. I’ve been doing this for years, and last year a couple of friends actually paid me to make extra ones for them for gifts to their friends and family. Dr. Bell was right on target three decades ago. I shared a few extra plants with a grower in Wake Forest and with one of our Carrboro Farmers’ Market growers to encourage production of Carolina Bay. So, hopefully we may begin seeing a new native showing up at harvest time.

In the meantime, don’t wait. Grow a bay tree or two in your garden and you can have your own bay leaves for cooking and wreath making. The plant is easily grown from the seed of a fruit that looks like a miniature black olive. Just clean that hard seed and poke it in the ground in the late fall and watch for a little tree seedling in the spring. Some of the local nurseries may have plants. Cure Nursery down toward Pittsboro (542-6186) still has a few, although they are not listed on their website www.curenursery.com. Several hundred gallon-size pots of Carolina Red Bay are in stock at Mello Marsh Farm (742-1200) down near Silk Hope. Check out their website at www.mellowmarshfarm.com. If you do make the trip over to Silk Hope for your very own bay tree and you mention The Carrboro Citizen, Mellow Marsh will give you a special discount.

Happy Growing and Happy Harvest!

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