Dear Readers, I feel a bit of an idiot concerning this plant. When I spotted it in East Finchley Cemetery yesterday, I suspected that it was Mediterranean because of those grey-green, waxy leaves, but as I had never seen a bay tree in flower before, I thought I’d found something much rarer and more exotic. However, seeing that fluffy yellow blossom has given me a whole new perspective on a plant that I’d previously thought of as small, clipped and well-behaved. This beautiful tree was at least thirty feet tall, elegant and abundant. It just goes to show what a plant that is normally seen in a terracotta pot can do when it’s liberated.
I was right about the plant’s Mediterranean origins though – there used to be Laurel forests which covered most of the area. Before the drying out of the area during the Pliocene era (between 5 and 2.5 million years ago), evergreen forests flourished in the high humidity and constant temperatures. Today, there are only a few relict areas of laurel forest in places such as Madeira, the Canary Islands and the wetter areas of Spain. However, the inheritance of these damp, rainy places can be seen in the shape of the leaf of the bay tree – it has a sharp, pointed tip, and a waxy surface, enabling the rain to trickle down and drip off rather than accumulating on the leaf. The wax acts to prevent the leaves from drying out in the much hotter, drier climate of the Mediterranean basin today, too.
When anyone mentions bay, though, thoughts turn to stews (or mine do, anyway). My Mum always tucked a random dried bay leaf into a beef stew, though not a chicken casserole. The leaves that we had seemed to serve no purpose at all other than being something of a surprise when they were accidentally eaten at dinner time, but I have been experimenting with using more bay, in different dishes, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that the dried leaves can add a subtle but delicious background flavour in conjunction with ingredients such as garlic, thyme and rosemary. It appears that the fresh leaves have rather too much of the menthol and eucalyptus flavour that comes from the essential oils, so bay is one of the few herbs that most chefs prefer to use dried. I have also used it in rice pudding, and rather liked it, plus it’s one of those herbs that is regularly thrown into pickling mixtures. Let me know how you use it, readers! I am always keen to learn.
The essential oils in bay leaves probably developed to dissuade insects from nibbling them (as is the case with other herbs such as rosemary, thyme and lavender). Interestingly, some entomologists used crushed bay leaves in their killing jars; the insects subjected to the fumes die slowly and peacefully, making them easier to mount. Not that Bugwoman approves, obviously. The leaves can also be used to repel clothes moths, silverfish, mice and many other small unwelcome visitors (though not children 🙂 )
Bay has a very long cultural history too. In Ancient Greece, bay leaves were used to make the laurel wreath that adorned the foreheads of competition winners and poets, and in Rome it became the symbol of emperors. Originally it represented the god Apollo, and his priestess was said to chew laurel leaves before giving her prophecies. The laurel is deeply embedded in our language even today – we have a poet laureate (i.e. a poet who wears the laurel wreath), and we speak of someone ‘resting on their laurels’ or suggest that they should ‘look to their laurels’ in the face of new competition. The name of the French examination the Baccalaureate comes from the same root.
The Romans also believed that bay trees were immune to lightning, and so the Emperor Tiberius always wore a laurel wreath when there was stormy weather. As with so many things, there is an element of truth here – bay is very resistant to fire, but when it does burn it does so with a loud crackling noise, leading the Romans to believe that the tree was inhabited by a fire demon who protected it. Pliny the Elder advised against burning bay on altars, for example, because the noise that it emitted sounded as if it was angrily protesting. Apparently the devil is rendered helpless by bay, so wearing a laurel wreath might be a useful precaution during most every day activities, if you don’t mind the funny looks.
Medicinally, bay has been used as a preventative during epidemics, and for rheumatism. The berries of the bay tree were believed by Culpeper to be efficacious against all kinds of bites from venomous creatures. A tincture of bay was used for ear drops, and bay oil was used for sprains (something very useful for those of us who are inclined to trip over stray microbes or infinitesimally small imperfections in a paving slab).
Incidentally, the bay tree is not closely related to the similar-looking cherry laurel, which seems to have taken over half the country. This is an important distinction because while you can obviously eat the leaves of the bay tree, those of the cherry laurel are packed full of cyanide. You have been warned.
And finally, a poem. I rather love this, because it’s about a pigeon, and a bay tree, and lots else besides.
a pigeon batters out the bay-tree opposite and stumbles
into flight as implausibly as a jumbo.
At night, more
ominously, when the garden gate goes, it shambles
loudly off through the same shaken, protesting tree,
having slept, as it must, on its nerves. The bay-leaves
subside, and my own jumpy heart, before my key
The pigeon’s world is no better than it believes
but I have sometimes known acts of kindness make me weep
Most nights, most people are not afraid to sleep.
Photo One By Petar43 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33242606
Photo Two By Inkaroad – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16991162
Photo Three By PicsART05 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48893760
Photo Four from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/377950593703120990/
Photo Five By Auréola – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7654436
Photo Six by By Itineranttrader – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5781348
Photo Seven by Karduelis – Original image, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=470021