Nearly every wintery stew, casserole or hearty soup I enjoy making includes a bay leaf, so I couldn’t be without my bay tree. Fresh bay leaves have a much stronger, “bay leaf” flavour than the dried ones and bay trees are easy to grow as, edible expert and author, Penny Woodward explains………..
Bays (Laurus nobilis ) were seen by the old herbalists as a virtuous tree which “resisteth witchcraft very potently”. The Greeks dedicated them to Apollo, the sun god. The Delphic priestesses, oracles of Apollo, held bay leaves between their lips as they made prophesies. In Greek and Roman cultures victors, heroes, academics and artistic figures were rewarded with a wreath or crown of bay leaves. This gave rise to the terms ‘baccalaureate’ and ‘poet laureate’.
Bays are unusual in the world of herbs because they can grow into large trees, sometimes as high as 20 metres. But they are very slow growing and with careful pruning make excellent lawn specimens, topiary trees, pot plants or hedges. They are tough, useful, evergreen aromatic plants with shiny, dark green elliptical leaves. Male and female flowers grow on different trees but all are greenish yellow and fairly inconspicuous. The flowers on female trees, once fertilised, develop into dark purple berries. Bays grow in most soils as long as the drainage is good, but like lots of sun and protection from harsh winds, especially cold. Young trees don’t like frosts but become more resistant as they grow.
New bay trees can be grown from seed, cuttings, or by detaching suckers. As seeds rarely germinate unless conditions are ideal (which includes constant temperatures around 24°C) and cuttings of semi-ripe shoots taken in summer can take up to 6 months to develop roots, the average gardener is probably better off buying an established plant or taking a sucker from an existing tree.
Use bay leaves either fresh or dried, but fresh leaves are much more flavoursome. Add them whole to soups, stews, casseroles and meat sauces, removing before serving.
One or two fresh bay leaves placed in food containers will prevent moths and bugs from infesting flours and cereals, and put between the pages of a book will help to repel silverfish. In fact the whole tree is disease and pest resistant and will protect other plants in the area from many insect pests.
The bay tree has been credited with numerous medicinal properties over the centuries, but is probably most useful now as an oil that brings relief when rubbed into aching limbs and muscles. Combine two handfuls of crushed fresh leaves, enough light olive oil to cover and one tablespoon of white vinegar in a screw topped jar. Leave it on a sunny windowsill, shaking regularly for a month. Strain and use when needed.
Bay trees are supposed to protect us from devils, witches, thunder and lightning so obviously no garden should be without one!
If you are looking to grow a bay tree in a small space or a pot, keep an eye out for the Laurus Baby Bay – a fast growing tree, that reaches no more than 2 metres high.
The larger growing bay trees are readily available from all good nurseries and garden centres or online at The Diggers Club.