The Bay tree is often seen being used purely for decorative purposes, as the shape can easily be cultivated. It naturally grows in a pyramid like shape but when pruned often is shaped into a big lollypop. It is an evergreen tree which is native to Southern Europe and can reach a height of 18.3m (60ft) but is often much smaller. It has very shiny, green, ecliptic and thick leaves and has yellow flowers in the spring.
History and Legend
The ancient Greeks used to crown their poets with bay leaves and Apollo, greek god of poetry and philosophy, made his high priestesses eat bay leaves before chatting to the Oracles at Delphi. His temple had a roof that was made from bay leaves in order to shield it from witchcraft and lightning.
The Wacky Romans are thought to have stolen this tradition of crowning victors in poetry with chaplets of bay leaves, and the English term ,Poet Laureate’ comes from this tradition.
The famous herbalist ‘Culpeper’ thought that Bay was a wonderful herb saying that, ‘it resists all evils satan can do to man.’ Mind you, the more I read of Culpeper the more I think that, although he was a brilliant man, he was also a bit mad. Another madman who loved bay was the Arabian herbalist, ‘Ibn Baithar’, who thought sticking a bay leaf behind your ear prevented drunkenness. Imagine trying to explain that to a policeman if you were caught drink driving, ‘nah, it’s ok mate, I’ve had 12 pints but I stuck a bay leaf behind my ear so I’m Ok’. Can’t see it myself somehow.
Growing Bay Trees
Not the easiest to grow from seed as it needs to be kept at a temperature of around 21°C (65°F). Sow the seeds on the surface of a seed tray or straight into pots. Germination can take from between 10 days – to 6 months or more! Ensure that the compost is not too wet as the seeds will rot.
You might want to try growing from cuttings but again you will need to be patient as even the most experienced herbalists have trouble. A heated propagator will do, as will covering the cutting in plastic, as high humidity is needed. Cuttings can be taken all year round but are best taken in early summer. Take out any off shoots and if they have roots, plant in bark and grit compost mix. Keep a plastic bag around the plants to retain humidity and plant out after a year.
Staying with the self sufficient ‘ish’ theme it is perhaps best to buy one already half grown from a garden centre. This might seem like cheating and is more expensive, but is far easier than trying to grow from seed or a cutting. If you want a challenge though, Bay is your herb.
Cut back the trees in the spring to give a good shape and maintain growth in the spring, also give them a good liquid feed. In very hot weather water well to ensure that young plants do not dry out.
Bay should be protected from frost; cover with straw or bracken. If they get too cold the leaves may turn brown but don’t panic, as new shoots should grow back in the spring.
Position in full sun and shield from high winds. Soil should be well drained and rich. Bay will also benefit from mulching in the spring to ensure it gets some moisture in the summer months.
It is an essential ingredient in bouquet garni where it is combined with Thyme and Parsley in a cheesecloth bag then used to season soups, stews and sauces; I have also seen it in tea bag form. It can makes an excellent addition to marinades and casseroles. Bay leaves should always be removed from the dish before serving. They can be used fresh or dried although many chiefs will insist that it should always be used fresh to maintain more flavour.