Half a Hundred Herbs Week 39 – Bay
Once we had a bay tree. At its best, it was about seven feet high and as vigorous as anything in the garden. It survived temperatures of -20 degrees, and there was a blackbird’s nest in it. Unfortunately, however, it took up a lot of room and shaded out everything else in the herb patch, so it had to go. We cut it down, dug up roots and punched copper nails into the stump, but for years it kept coming back, and this is one of the suckers thrown up in its last days. For all the vigour of the stems, they don’t root particularly easily, and to be honest, this is my sole success.
Bay is very slow to get going in the spring, which used to cause me some nervousness after the very cold winters, as I wondered if it would ever get going. In France it used to be said that you could tell when you could move your orange trees out of the greenhouse by noticing when the bay started to put out new leaves. But it’s hardier than you would think.
Bay is the first herb I ever used, in savoury mince in my Domestic Science class – you can guess my advanced age by the fact that I not only had the classes, but we actually cooked in them – and it is probably the herb I use most often, in meat sauces, stocks and stews. Its scent is rich, and to me, unmistakeably savoury, but there does seem to be a vogue for putting it in sweet custards, which I don’t really get.
It has some medicinal uses, for liver and stomach complaints, and can be used in pot pourri to add depth and a more masculine edge. But most of its non-kitchen uses are magical or symbolic. Wreaths of the leaves symbolised victory, and it is said that the oracles at Delphi were given under the influence of the smoke from burning bay branches. Trees were planted to provide protection from demons and witchcraft, and the sudden death of a bay tree was regarded as an omen of disaster. Bay and rosemary were used as decorations for houses at Christmas before the introduction of Christmas trees, and the twigs were burned on Twelfth Night, which may have provided a very welcome disinfectant and insect-repellant smoke after the crowded and stuffy holiday season.
This is a plant I bought when I was feeling pessimistic about the prospects of the rooted suckers. It’s doing pretty well too, a little ahead of my own plant. I’ll keep them in pots, clipped small, and harvest the leaves regularly.
The garden is doing very well, in spite of the heavy rain. Chervil and coriander have germinated, and the first harvests of chives and mint are in the freezer. The little plants I put in the revamped culinary patch have settled in well, though I don’t know how much growth the sage plants will put on. Woodruff and cowslips are in flower, and the new lavender hedge and the chamomile offsets I planted out are beginning to thrive. Now it’s all about keeping ahead of the horsetail, hairy bittercress, willow herb and creeping buttercup which will take over if I take my eye off them for a minute!