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The Noble Bay

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Bay LeafBay LeafBay Leaf, Sweet Bay (Laurus nobilis)

The Bay is an aromatic evergreen shrub or small tree native to the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. It has a noble history and features prominently in classical Greek, Roman, Chinese and Biblical culture. The Latin name is believed to derive from the Celtic word "laur" meaning green, and the Latin "nobilis" signifying noble. Bay was first an herb of poets, but also of oracles, warriors, statesmen and doctors. The leaves were made into wreaths for illustrious poets (“poet laureate”) and used to crown heroes. In Greece the tree is known as "Daphne" and one version of her story, shrouded in the ancient mists of mythology, tells how a nymph called Daphne pleaded with mother earth for help in avoiding Apollo’s amorous advances. Mother Earth obligated by changing her into a bay-laurel tree for protection. From that time forward the heartbroken Apollo wore a laurel wreath in remembrance of her, and Zeus, who saw her transformation, vowed to always wear a wreath of laurel and make the laurel part of all triumphal ceremonies in her memory. In the Bible, the sweet-bay is often used as an emblem of prosperity and fame, and in Christian tradition it is said to symbolize the resurrection of Christ and the triumph of humanity. Chinese folklore says that there is a great laurel tree on the moon, and the Chinese name for laurel literally translates to “moon-laurel.”

Traditionally a poultice soaked in boiled bay leaves was applied to rashes caused by poison ivy, poison oak, and stinging nettle. Today the essential oil of bay leaf is used in massage therapy to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism. It is also one of the main ingredients in Aleppo soap (a castile soap made with olive oil and bay oil), which is revered worldwide for its skin care properties. Some of the most impressive health benefits of bay leaves include their ability to detoxify the body, slow the aging process, speed wound healing, protect the body from bacterial infections, reduce inflammation, alleviate respiratory issues, and optimising digestion. Bay leaves contain a rather unique phytonutrient, called “parthenolide” which can quickly reduce inflammation and irritation when topically applied to affected areas. One of the least commonly known benefits of bay leaves is their naturally soothing quality. “Linalool” is often associated with thyme and basil, but is also present in bay leaves, and is used to help lower the level of stress hormones in the body, especially when used in aromatherapy. Aqueous extracts of bay can be used as astringents and even as a salve for open wounds, but be cautious because some people find bay to be a skin irritant.

The leathery dark green leaves of bay are very fragrant and are used fresh or dried. Their warm, somewhat “woodsy” character lends itself well to foods that require a long simmering time, thus allowing the bay flavour a chance to permeate. Fresh leaves have a more bitter taste than dried ones; and because the leaves don't soften much in cooking, they are usually removed before eating.

Bay leaf is commonly used in French, Moroccan, Turkish and Mediterranean cooking to flavour not only soups and stews, but also for stocks, gravies and pickles; as well as dishes containing tomato, meat and beans. Bay also compliments potato and corn dishes well; and together with thyme and parsley, forms part of a classic “bouquet garni” (a chef's term for a bundle of herbs which is tied up with string so that it can easily be removed from dishes), and generally used to flavour soups, stocks, sauces, and brines. Traditionally a bouquet garni comprises of parsley (or parsley stalks, which have lots of flavour), a few sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf.

Bay leaves are a natural repellent for crawling insects and are often placed in containers used for storing pasta, rice or flour to keep the weevils out.

Dried and finely ground bay leaves are also frequently used in salt-free seasonings and dried leaves will retain their flavour for about one year if they are stored correctly. Bay leaves are often added to a “Bloody Mary” – a tomato juice based cocktail with vodka and other ingredients like: Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and freshly ground black pepper; garnished with a stick of celery.

The bay tree remains a popular garden evergreen, and because it responds very well to pruning and can be clipped into any shape, is an excellent choice for topiary, and well suited to formal gardens. If kept neatly clipped, the dark-green foliage can be trained to create a stunning frame for an entrance or patio. It also makes a superb slow growing hedge or screening plant; and its dark green leaves provide an ideal backdrop for other plants in the border. In smaller gardens it can easily be kept as a small tree or bushy shrub. Since it is a slow grower, and responds well to pruning, it is also ideal for container growing.

This handsome evergreen will vary in height and spread, depending on climate and rainfall. It is a slow grower and, if left unpruned, and under optimal conditions, can eventually reach a height of about 7 to 12m, with a spreading crown. Small greenish-yellow male or female flowers are produced in spring, followed by shiny black berries about 1cm long, on the female plants. The berries are rich in essential oils.

Bay Standards. Picture courtesy Karl GercensBay Standards. Picture courtesy Karl GercensBay Standards. Picture courtesy Karl GercensBay trees grow well throughout South Africa and are reasonably tolerant of salty sea spray, but do better in coastal regions if planted in a sheltered position. In hot dry summer regions they will need moderate watering during the growing season. In hot weather ensure that plants in containers do not dry out. In cool to warm areas they will thrive in full sun, but in hot, dry, or tropical regions, they appreciate some shade during the hottest part of the day. Bay trees will grow in soils ranging from very acidic to slightly alkaline. They prefer a fertile, well-drained soil but will adapt to most garden soils. They are fully hardy to -5°C but in severely cold regions young trees will need protection from cold drying winds and severe frost, until they are well established. Mature bay trees can withstand even lower temperatures if the roots are thickly mulched in winter; and if frost damage does occur, remove the damaged growth in spring and the plant will normally recover quickly. In cold regions, cut back on watering in winter. Potted plants are less hardy than those growing in the ground and may need to be moved in winter.

Pruning is usually done in spring, once all danger of frost is over, but light trimming can be done at any time during the growing season; frequent pruning may mean less flowers and berries. Remove weeds by hand because bay trees have a very shallow root system which can easily be damaged by digging too near the stem. Adding mulch regularly will protect the shallow roots from cold and heat and feed the plant. Potted plants may require more feeding during the growing season than those planted in the ground. Any balanced liquid or granular fertiliser can be used. Old and tired potted plants can be re-potted in spring into fresh, well-drained potting soil.

Bay can be propagated from seed collected in the autumn. Remove the fleshy outer casing and sow as soon as possible. Dry seed can be soaked in warm water for 24 hours before sowing.  Semi-hardwood cuttings taken in late summer strike roots well and layering is often successful, but slower than cuttings.

Pests, Diseases and Problems: You are unlikely to suffer from serious pests and diseases with bay trees, most problems are caused by over-watering and exposure to cold and windy conditions. Watch out for scale insects which appear as white and brown 'scales' under the leaves and on the stems. Ants love the sweet secretion that the scale insects leave behind, so if you see ants running up and down the stems, there are sure to be scale insects present. Spray with a white mineral oil like Oleum to control them. If your plant is growing in a very sheltered position or under a roof, it is more likely to be affected by scale insects.

Spots on the leaves are often caused by waterlogged roots, or wet weather conditions. Yellow leaves can indicate a nutrient deficiency, which can be the problem in container-grown plants, but is more commonly caused by waterlogged compost or cold weather damage. Peeling bark may follow a very harsh winter, especially on the lower main stems. The cause is uncertain, but extreme winter cold and fluctuating soil moisture levels are likely causes. Though the damage looks alarming it does not have to be fatal. If the rest of the plant is growing normally or recovering from winter damage, no action is needed. However, if the growth above the damaged area is dead, remove the dead parts cutting to healthy wood (i.e. green under the bark) or close to soil level. Recovery from lower down or soil level often occurs.

Caution: The common name “bay leaf” is a term that applies to many different plants around the world; however, to achieve all of the health benefits listed above, it is essential that you find true bay leaf with the scientific name "Laurus nobilis". Other varieties can actually be toxic when consumed, so be certain that you’re getting the real thing! Bay leaves are not a widely known allergenic, but contact dermatitis and eczema breakouts have been sporadically reported. If you are allergic to other members of the Lauraceae family, you may be allergic to bay leaves as well.

The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, recording the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.

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