Suddenly bay has become boring. There’s a new leaf in town, hiding in plain sight.
It was chance that led me to crush the leaves of the ubiquitous Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) in passing. Immediately the scent of fresh, tender foliage cried, “cook me!” To think that I used to look at this native denizen of our area’s dunelands with some scorn as a garden designer, thinking, “but what does it do?” No flowers, silly little round fruit, and all those evergreen leaves.
I had been aware of bayberry’s Old Time application in soap making, which is what may have put me off. And while most foraging resources list the dried leaf as the edible part, no one spoke about using it as a fresh herb. I now find myself gathering the fragrant green leaves from our beach and riverside bushes and carrying them home for dinner. The leaves of shrubs growing in full sun have a more pronounced flavor than those shaded by the wild cherries of the Rockaways or the serviceberries of Battery Park’s South Cove.
So far, the finely chopped fresh bayberry leaves have lent themselves well to a fresh herb rub for baby back ribs and under-the-skin stuffing for roast chicken (they were mixed with sweet butter). Gin infused with the leaves takes on a delicately green herbal note, which works well with the spirit’s juniper kick. They often grow side by side, after all: Top a bayberry-infused Gibson with some pickled field garlic, and you are granted gold star entry to foraging heaven.