Sweet Bay - The Noble Herb
|Medieval Herb garden, Provence|
Apollo, god of the sun, forever walks the lands of the bay tree, the lands of his long lost love. Apollo was fatally attracted to the mountain nymph Daphne and pursued her. But despite his great glory, she rejected all his advances and her father, acting somewhat excessively by modern standards, turned her into a bay tree to protect her virtue. The sweet bay tree Laurus nobilis is still known in Greece as Daphne in her honour. Apollo persisted in his devotion to a lost love, forever more wearing a circlet of bay leaves in her memory, and offered protection to anyone who carried with a sprig of bay.
Both the Greeks and the Romans crowned their greatest athletes, poets, triumphant generals, and emperors with laurel wreaths. Roman senators, in the tradition of politicians everywhere, awarded themselves this signal mark of honour. In the medieval period, men of great learning as well as academic graduates continued to be crowned with a wreath woven from the leaves and berries of sweet bay. Known as the bacca laurea, this wreath is still comemorated in France in the word baccalauréat, the final secondary school exams, and in the English title of Poet Laureate.
If you need a little fiery magic in your life, sweet bay should certainly be planted in your garden. Not only is it the herb of Apollo but also of Cerridwen, the Celtic goddess, of Ceres, and of Aesculapius the Greek god of medicine and son of Apollo. Sweet bay not only offered protection against evil.The Romans particularly relied on its powerful protection against lightning, perhaps because Apollo was the son of Zeus, god of thunderbolts. Bay leaves were burned in rituals to penetrate the veils of time, and placed beneath the pillow at night to increase creativity and bring prophetic dreams. The third Oracle Shrine at Delphi in Greece was thatched with the branches of sweet bay for this reason, and the oracle pronounced her prophecies with a bay leaf held between her lips. Bay leaves were also used in incense and carried in sachets as a magical healing plant. For such magical uses, sweet bay is ritually harvested, picked at its most potent when the sun shines in one’s face at the first moment of sunrise.
Like all powerfully magical herbs, the sweet bay had its downside. If a tree died it was thought to be an omen of great disaster. Shakespreare was certainly aware of this tradition. In Richard II the Captain says: “Tis thought the King is dead, we will not stay/ The bay trees in our country are all wither’d.”
The sweet bay is an evergreen, and native to the countries that border the Mediterranean. In cooler areas it rarely grows larger than a shrub to 3.5 metres, but in warmer areas it can become over a long time a substantial tree to 20 metres. The dark green leaves have a delightfully aromatic, warm and spicy fragrance reminiscent of cinnamon. They are used in bouquet garni to flavour savoury dishes such as casseroles, soups, stews, sauces, and pickles. The leaves are equally delghtful in many sweet dishes such as custard tarts and other milk based desserts. Tuck a few young leaves into a bowl of fresh fruit salad or a fruit punch before chilling. Delicious! In the Middle East the leaves are used to flavour coffee. For kitchen use,the leaves can be harvested at any time and air dried away from sunlight, storing them afterwards in airtight containers. But the fresh leaf can be used in any recipe. Bay laurel wood, or just a few woody twigs added to the barbeque, creates a memorable feast.
The clusters of nectar filled, cream coloured axillary flowers are very modest, and are followed by aromatic blue-black berries which yield a fragrant oil containing cineol that has been used for perfumery, in liqueurs, and for veterinary liniments. Bay leaves also act as a weevil deterrent and have long been stored with rice, flour, dried figs, and other dried foods in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries.
Bay has also found use in herbal medicine as a tea made with 30g of leaves steeped for 10 minutes in 3 cups boiling water and sipped to relieve flatulence and aid digestion. This same tea has also been used to relieve the symptoms of influenza and bronchitis, and is said to be useful in treating baldness when applied regularly to the scalp although no guarrantees are given. Simmer a large handfull of leaves in four cups of water for ten minutes , strain, and add to a hot bath to help relieve tired, aching legs.
Bay trees are susceptible to frost damage in their earlier years and can be scorched and cut back at temperatures of -7 degrees C and killed at -15 degrees C when young, but older branches and their leaves survive undamaged. Potted bay trees grow well indoors if they are given bright lighting and regular watering. Outdoors, the plant appreciates a warm, sunny position and good drainage. Bay trees are very accomodating but on heavy soils you will be rewarded for good preparation of the site with the addition of generous quantities of well rotted compost. A regular foliar feed of a seaweed based fertiliser will also keep the plant healthy. Its greatest enemy, white wax scale insect, is also the root cause of the disfiguring sooty mould seen commonly on undernourished bay trees. White oil can be used as a controlling spray on large specimens. Infestations on small bushes can be wiped with a cloth dipped in rubbing alcohol . Regular watering is essential. Plants rarely recover from wilting.
Sweet bay has some close and fragrant relatives such as the Canary Island Bay L. azorica and the tall growing, very aromatic, non-edible Californian bay Umbellularia californica. The cinnamon tree Cinnamomum zeylanicum, the cassia bark tree C. cassia, and the camphor laurel C. camphora are all closely related. The warmly fragrant Mexican bay Litsea glaucescens is a look alike and taste alike beloved in Mexican cooking, red bay Persea borbonia from the Gulf Coast of the USA is an excellent substitute for bay when used fresh, and the leaves of another shrub known as ‘sweet bay’ Magnolia virginiana was a popular and almost indetectable substitute on the American east coast.
Favourite smell-alikes are the delightfully aromatic bayberries or candleberries of North America, Myrica cerifera and M. pennsylvanica which are both native to the east coast, and M. californica from the west coast. They are tall evergreen shrubs with aromatic, shiny, tough leaves. Their inconspicuous deep blue, hard fruits are covered in a thick layer of wax which can be separated by boiling and is delightfully fragrant. It was used to make the scented candles so greatly prized by American colonialists, as well as soap. A fragrant oil is also extracted from the leaves.
Few plants respond as well to clipping and bay is an excellent subject for formal clipped hedges and simple topiary. Common topiary shapes are a standard with the top trimmed into a sphere, and an elongated pyramid. Bay topiary has been in vogue for at least two and a half millenia, often grown in large pots, and remains as fashionable as ever. Use one to create a garden focal point, or a pair to emphasise an entrance.