By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
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.
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.
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.
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.
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When I first started working as a cook, I was instructed in no uncertain terms to only use whole bay leaves when cooking so that when the leaves were removed, still whole, one could be sure that no pieces had broken off and remained in the stew (or whatever).
I was told that eating dried bay leaves was akin to eating broken glass in their potential effects on the digestive system.
Yet, just the other day I was eating a rabbit pie and I discovered a whole bay leaf in it. I asked the server, and she said that it was common practice for that restaurant to leave bay leaves in situ.
I guess they can't be that bad for you if restaurants can serve them hidden in the middle of a pie?
It’s a common myth that bay leaves are toxic when eaten whole and should only be used in their complete form to gently flavor stews and soups. It’s not in the least bit true – you’re more than welcome to chew on a leathery bay leaf if you want to – the worst that will happen is you‘ll choke on it . Not a pleasant experience, but not a fatal one either.
Not only are the greens of your brightly colored radishes edible, they “ are strikingly more nutritious than the radish roots ”.
Containing more vitamin A, C, and K than the edible roots, radish leaves can also improve gastrointestinal function . Toss them into a salad rather than onto the compost or sauté with a little garlic and oil to bring out their uniquely peppery flavor.
Besides edible vegetable greens, you can look at tree crops too!
Have you ever asked yourself, “Are broccoli leaves edible?” Well, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”.
In Italy, a variety of broccoli known as the spigariello has long been grown for its prized leaves. While farmers in other countries have used broccoli leaves “ just for cultivating the soil… they are now being recognized for their nutritional power ”.
Cook them as you would kale, spinach, or Swiss chard, adding them to salads, soups, sandwiches, and even a nutritious smoothie.
Most of us throw away our beet leaves without realizing what we’re missing. Look at Popeye – he had a great passion for spinach but didn’t even glance at a beet leaf, despite them being even higher in iron , and packed with the nutritional benefits of magnesium, potassium, and vitamins B6 and K.
Steam them, sauté them, or just munch down on them raw.
It’s not all about crunching the stalks either – celery leaves are both “ a bonus to their stalks and completely virtuous on their own .” Add a few to boost the flavor of soups and salads, or create a bright and flavourful pesto by pureeing them with a few toasted nuts and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
Who doesn’t love strawberries? They’re heart-shaped, vibrant, tasty, and good for your health, but what about the leaves?
Well, they may not be quite as attractive nor as taste-bud tantalizingly tasty, but they are safe to eat and contain numerous beneficial health factors .
Researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center concluded that strawberry leaves contain “antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, and neuroprotective properties”.
The most common way of consuming strawberry leaves is by making a tea out of them, but they can also be used externally as an astringent face wash, helping to “ reduce inflammation in and around acne-prone areas ”.
The humble cauliflower is a “ versatile vegetable that makes you forget your former comfort foods ”, but many of us discard the leaves without giving them a second thought. What a shame that is when you could “ let a little oil and a little heat transform the leaves from something you toss to something you crave ”.
Transform your cauliflower leaves into a tasty dal or a chutney rich in calcium as well as flavor. Alternatively, roast your leaves in a hot oven and watch as they emerge “crispy at the tips… and buttery along the stalk”. Yum.
The Thiền Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, believes that “ If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine ”. That goes for the feathery green carrot tops as much as their orange roots.
Despite the common misconception that carrot leaves are poisonous, they are both “ very edible and loaded with vitamins and minerals”. Although they can be a little bitter, blanching or sautéing them can resolve that problem.
Why not try making a carrot top pesto or a deliciously garlicky carrot leaf chimichurri? Feeling adventurous? Try your hand at this Garlicky Moong-Masoor daal with Carrot Greens .
Native to South America, the sweet potato has traveled far and wide and its leaves are almost as popular as the tuber. China is currently “ the largest producer of sweet potato ” which is also “one of the world’s main crops”.
The leaves are “most popularly eaten in the islands in the Pacific Ocean, Asia, and Africa” while, in the Philippines, sweet potato leaves, or camote tops, “are eaten fresh in salads… [or] cooked in vinegar and soy sauce and served with fried fish”.
Sweet potato leaves aren’t just delicious either – they’re also good for you, giving you the essential nutrients necessary to boost your heart’s health while bringing a ntioxidant and antibacterial qualities to your diet.
Try eating them raw in a salad, stir-fry them with a bit of garlic, or boil them to reduce their bitterness.
As a part of the Nightshade family, tomatoes are related to notoriously toxic plants like hemlock, foxglove, and oleander. So, are tomato leaves edible? Oddly enough, they are, at least for humans ( dogs aren’t quite so resilient ).
Tomato leaves do contain tomatine which is a “mild toxin” but “you’d have to eat pounds and pounds of them before you’d get appreciable amounts of toxins to make you ill”. They do mention, however, that “it is likely to cause you some gastrointestinal distress.” This one is to be approached with caution.
With a strong herbal aroma, tomato leaves can be blended into a pesto, chutney, or even a spicy tomato sauce. Not only will you get the pungent flavor, but you may also get some great health benefits.
Maple syrup is virtually irresistible but that’s not the only offering these “ sociable trees ” have to offer. The young spring leaves of the maple tree can be eaten either raw or cooked, with each tree’s leaves providing a slightly different maple flavor.
Although the leaves of the Red Maple are toxic to horses – humans, dogs, and cats can all eat them safely and enjoy some serious health benefits to boot. According to researchers at the URI College of Pharmacy’s Bioactive Botanical Laboratory , maples “have biochemical substances in their leaves, bark, and sap that may counteract inflammation, the root of many of the diseases”.
By regulating blood glucose levels, the maple tree may help people who have diabetes or are pre-diabetic. There are also indications of beneficial effects of maple compounds on Alzheimer’s, possibly by counteracting neuro-inflammation”. You could even make a Maple Leaf cocktail … except that it doesn’t actually contain maple leaves!
Enjoying a good grape leaf requires two things: first, you need to take a leaf out of Turkey’s book of traditional cooking, then take a small leap of faith, and, next thing you know, you’re sitting down to a classic Turkish tortilla – with grape leaves as the wrapper.
Dolmades, Dolmas, or “grape leaves stuffed with minced lamb and rice” are also popular in Greece, the Middle East, and Turkey. According to some, their popularity began when Alexander the Great besieged Thebes and “ was taken aback by the platters of stuffed vine leaves ”.
“Stuffed grape leaves are a delicious Mediterranean mezze” and can be stuffed with anything you like – from the traditional minced meat and rice approach to a vegan-friendly alternative packed with herbs, rice, and pine nuts.
The horseradish is a peculiar plant, “ being neither a radish nor a horse ”, but that doesn’t make it any less tasty. While too much horseradish is a bad thing – in small amounts, it has a pungent, spicy flavor and provides “ a variety of health benefits, such as fighting cancer, infections, and respiratory issues ”.
The North Carolina State University warns that horseradish is toxic if eaten in large quantities and may cause “profuse sweating, irritation of the stomach and intestines, loss of strength, disorientation”. In smaller quantities, however, the leaves can be used like turnip or mustard greens, making “a great foil for rich things like smoked meat, especially beef and pork”.
Before today, I had no idea that some wonder, “Are mint leaves edible?”. I’ve been plucking them off the plant outside the kitchen window and nibbling on them for years so I can confirm that I’ve managed that without any horrible side effects.
Although not a lot of research has been done on the benefits of eating mint leaves, there is evidence to suggest that they “ can improve oral health, increase exercise performance, combat inflammation and soothe digestive troubles, among other things ”.
I love a cup of mint tea before bed and often add a few leaves to my smoothies, salads, and sauces. While spearmint is the variety most commonly used for cooking, orange mint is a great addition to salsa, whereas peppermint comes into its own in sweet desserts like Martha Stewart’s Chocolate Mini Torte .
Having discovered that you can eat sweet potato leaves, you might be tempted to try another member of the nightshade family. Don’t do it! Your common or garden variety of potato produces a glycoalkaloid poison known as solanine to protect itself from the sun. Closely related to nicotine, solanine is poisonous, and potentially even fatal.
In extreme cases, it can lead to respiratory failure. Take the case of the Chelysheva family in Russia, four members of which suffocated after inhaling the fumes emitted by rotting potatoes in their basement.
For a spice used to season numerous dishes, bay leaves have an undeservedly frightening reputation. While fresh bay leaves are hard to find, according to Ponikowski, specialty food stores might carry them in late summer and fall. Do not eat bay leaves from trees unless you're certain that what you have is Laurel nobilus, since other types of laurel can be poisonous. If you're not positive what type of tree you have, take a branch to a nursery or arborist for verification. It's safer to buy your bay leaves from the store if possible, the University of Florida recommends.