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The aromatic tree/shrub – Laurus nobilis

Bay Watch

Our “tree correspondent” Joan Taylor-Rowan continues her investigation of Hastings & St Leonards trees.

Latin name: Laurus nobilis
Common name: Bay tree or bay laurel
Location: Nice examples of bay trees in pots on Swan Terrace in Hasting old town. Very large bay tree in St Clements churchyard, Croft Road.

The lollipop-shaped bay tree growing in a tub outside houses, fancy shops and restaurants has become a familiar sight in recent years. In the Mediterranean where the bay tree is indigenous, it can grow into a 50’ giant. And here in Hastings too, I found a 30’ beast in the churchyard of St Clements church in the old town.

The bay tree, the sweet bay, the Grecian bay and the bay laurel are all names for the aromatic tree/shrub – Laurus nobilis – I’ll refer to it in this article as the laurel tree or the bay tree. The leaves are long and leathery and the delicate yellow/white flowers, once pollinated, will produce small, round black berries. It’s an evergreen, which is why it is very popular for hedges and it is also dioecious, (with male and female flowers on separate trees).

It has a long history of culinary and medicinal usage but a word of warning: do not pick and use the leaves or berries from a laurel unless you know without any doubt that it is a bay laurel. Not all “laurels” are edible. There are several popular hedging plants referred to as laurel, which aren’t laurels at all. For example, the cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) and the Portuguese Laurel (Prunus lusitanica) These look very similar to the bay laurel but are poisonous to humans and animals. Learn which laurel trees are edible here.

The predominant oil in the bay tree, is eugenol, which along with the other constituent oils, give it that mix of pine, spice and citrus that is so irresistible. If you are lucky enough to have one outside your house or in your garden, you can harvest your own leaves and berries – the flavour of the leaves is most intense 3-7 days after picking, and can last for up to a year, if the leaves are kept in a cool, dark place.

A dried bay leaf will transform a soup or stew. Tie a bay leaf with a few herb sprigs (oregano, thyme, marjoram) into a bit of muslin and you have a bouquet garni that will transport you to Provence. The dried berries can add zip to a Bloody Mary and the leaves can add depth to a fruit compote – I’ve tried it with stewed apricots and its delicious. Nowadays, bay leaves are taken out of the cooking pot before the food is served, but in the past, they were left in, to bring good fortune to the person who found it in their bowl – rather like the sixpence in a Christmas pudding.

Apart from its uses in the kitchen, bay was, and still is, considered a valuable addition to the medicine cabinet, protecting against epidemics when taken as a tea, made into a poultice to ease rheumatism or applied as a salve to wounds and stinging rashes. It has anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties and is full of antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin E. The famous herbalist, Culpeper, believed the berries to be “effectual against the poisons of venomous creatures, wasps and bee stings.” As well as protecting humans, bay leaves were used to protect food from insects and meal moths; dried figs are sometimes packed in bay leaves to impart flavour and repel insects.

Laurel has many mythical associations. According to the Greeks, the nymph Daphne was so desperate to escape the unwanted attentions of Apollo, that she begged help from her father – a river deity – who turned her into a slender laurel tree, (hence the Greek for laurel is Dafni). However, Apollo was not so easily thwarted and adopted the beautiful laurel as his own symbol, dedicating it to those with athletic or artistic prowess. The Romans did likewise, awarding laurel wreaths to winning athletes and scholars. The laurel wreath is still worn by graduating students in some parts of Italy and the exhortation not to ‘rest on your laurels’ is still in use today. The bay laurel was also the herb of poets – which is where we get the term ‘poet Laureate’.

The leaves and berries if taken in large amounts can be stimulants and Greek students in classical antiquity used them rather like we use black coffee – to keep them awake through hours of study. ‘Baccalaureate’ is derived from the Latin for laurel berries. Apollo’s priestesses also benefited from the laurel’s alleged narcotic properties, chewing the berries to bring forth prophesies. A few bay leaves under the pillow were said to stimulate prophetic dreams and even poetry – although I’ve yet to try that.

The Caesars put great store by the laurel’s protective properties – Tiberius Caesar was said to wear laurel leaves to protect him from lightning. But some properties of the laurel sadly do not live up to the hype. Its ability to safeguard the wearer from conspiracies and accidents proved ineffective – as Julius Caesar would have testified, had he not been murdered in a conspiracy.

 

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Posted 16:38 Wednesday, Jan 26, 2022 In: Green Times

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