Wednesday Weed – Bay

Bay (Laurus nobilis)

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.

Photo One by By Petar43 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33242606

Bay in a pot (Photo One)

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.

Photo Two by By Inkaroad - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16991162

Laurel Forest in Tenerife (Photo Two)

Photo Three by By PicsART05 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48893760

Laurel Forest in La Gomera (One of the Canary Islands) (Photo Three)

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.

Photo Four from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/377950593703120990/

Beef casserole with bay leaf(Photo Four)

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.

Photo Five by By Auréola - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7654436

Ovid wearing a laurel wreath (Photo Five)

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).

Photo Six by By Itineranttrader - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5781348

Lauris nobilis essential oil (Photo Six)

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.

Photo Seven by By Karduelis - Original image, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=470021

Leaves of the cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) (Photo Seven)

And finally, a poem. I rather love this, because it’s about a pigeon, and a bay tree, and lots else besides.

by Lachlan Mackinnon
Any time I happen to open my front door

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

goes home.

The pigeon’s world is no better than it believes

but I have sometimes known acts of kindness make me weep

for shame.

Most nights, most people are not afraid to sleep.

 

Photo Credits

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

7 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Bay

  1. Anne

    A fascinating delve into bay trees. My son and daughter-in-law planted a bay tree in their garden next door to ours. Not only was I kept well supplied with dried leaves, but i could pop in to pick fresh ones whenever I wished. Sadly they live in Norway now and the property has been sold. I enjoyed reading your poem. The line “Most nights, most people are not afraid to sleep” resonates with me as I find it very difficult to both go to sleep and to stay asleep!.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I hope you’ll be able to take a trip to Norway when all this pandemic stuff is sorted out, Anne! That would be one big contrast to South Africa….

      Reply
  2. Sarah

    The last house I lived in had a very overgrown bay hedge. Despite the evidence of my senses (including smell), I found it very difficult to believe these large trees were bay which, like you, I always associated with patio pots.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I know! It’s like when you see a plant that’s living in a pot in your living room ‘in the wild’ and it turns out that it grows to about 15 feet tall….

      Reply
  3. Ann Bronkhorst

    I use the leaves in several recipes, lately in a Spanish one for baked cod where you first make stock with potatoes, onion, garlic and Bay leaf. The church in my road has a tall bay tree that supplies me with leaves. There’s a lovely traditional French song:
    Nous n’irons plus aux bois, les Lauriers sont coupes. Can’t do the accent on the e!

    Reply
  4. FEARN

    Tom Stobart says (said) of bay “Very old dried bay leaves, as are so often sold, lose their strength and are of no use whatsoever” This may have a bearing on your childhood experience. He also says “”No kitchen should exist without bay leaves, and they should be used as a matter of habit.” The entomologists were definitely using cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) rather than Laurus nobilis. My Italian neighbour has perfected bay topiary. I will have to send you a photo.

    Reply

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