The Latin name of the Bay Tree means esteem and noble; laurel crowns were made from bay and given to victors.
In ancient Greek it was said that keeping a bay leaf in the mouth would prevent misfortune and by Roman times is had a reputation for preventing lighting strikes - Emperors would wear laurel wreaths on their heads to protect them. The Bay Leaf plant was also said to have supernatural powers.
It is one of the most popular of all shrub herbs, and treated right, can last many years - if not a lifetime!
Bay is an evergreen shrub, or small tree, 10-50 ft in height; it has glossy dark aromatic leaves with small clusters of cream flowers from tight buds that open in spring, followed by purple-black berries. Propagate by cuttings in summer, plant in fertile well-drained moist soil in a sunny position. In summer the foliage will respond to an occasional spraying in dry weather.
Whilst often grown as ornamental shrubs in containers, Bay Trees can get to quite large proportions if planted out in the garden, with quite a wide spread. However, if too unruly, they can be cut back quite hard in the spring or early summer.
Problems of Bays
It can be plagued with scale insect; small brown crustaceans normally found along the leaf veins. This pest usually leaves a sooty mould deposit on the bay leaves. Scale insect is the main pest that has a particular liking for Bayleaf Trees.
The shaped bay trees such as in the image, will get only slightly larger if kept trimmed. The same is true of the pyramid shaped Bays. However, if left untrimmed, the Pyramids will grow into large shrubs or small trees.
Bay Trees from Seed
Laurus nobilis - Bay trees - can be propagated by sowing seeds, but be prepared for a long wait before you see any activity. Several months is the norm, but I have managed to germinate one batch of seeds in just ten days. It is best to scarify the hard coat of the seed - if you buy commercial seeds that have had the fleshy coat removed - by rubbing the seeds on a piece of sandpaper lightly. If you collect seeds from the tree, then remove all traces of the soft fruity coating. this can be dome with an overnight soaking in water. Fresh seeds harvested from the tree are best sown as soon as possible.
Sow 2 or 3 seeds to a pot , or - if you are going at it wholesale - sow on the surface of compost in seed tray, then cover with horticultural vermiculite. The seeds will prefer an eve temperature of around 65deg F for best germination results.
Bay Trees from Cuttings.
Most Bay trees are commercially propagated from cuttings. Semi-ripe cuttings in late summer - September is good - can be rooted in a sand/peat mix in a cold greenhouse and left to overwinter. They should be rooted by Spring, and can be planted in small post for growing on, as soon as the new leaves start to appear on the cutting.
Before inserting the cutting, it is a good idea to shave a sliver of bark from the bottom inch of the cutting. Treat with hormone rooting powder. O good drench of general fungicide is recommended before covering the cuttings with a light plastic cover - clear. Secured to make to cutting and compost airtight. If cuttings are placed in a pot, then secure a clear plastic bag over the pot with an elastic band.
Bay is not widely used in modern herbal medicine, but has been used for various aliments; to relieve muscle pain and stomach disorders, and also used as an insect repellent, and to sooth skin rashes and earache. Place a few bay leaves in a warm bath to ease aching limbs. Seek advice.
Add Bay to casseroles, soups and stews. Always include a Bay leaf in a bouquet garni, as bay is a first rate herb. Bay is popular in sweet sauces and use as a garnish for citrus sorbets. A fresh leaf placed in a glass of milk an hour before drinking or in a milk pudding before cooking will improve the flavour. When poaching salmon, placing a bay leaf in the water will give a distinctive flavour. For advice on recipes see this.