The na­ture of things

Bay tree

Country Life Every Week - - Town & Country Notebook - Edited by Vic­to­ria Marston

THE bay tree near the house is long over­due for a good hard prune. In no time at all, it gets as high as the roof gut­ters, form­ing a stout, flame-shaped mass of pun­gent, dark ev­er­green­ery. Pe­ri­od­i­cally, it gets slain to waist height once spring is well un­der way.

Among the many mag­i­cal and mys­te­ri­ous qual­i­ties at­trib­uted to bay, or lau­rel, is its sup­posed power to give pro­tec­tion from light­ning. This be­lief goes back into the mists of time, but it’s said that the Ro­man Em­peror Tiberius would re­tire un­der his bed with a lau­rel wreath when thun­der was about. In Greek mythol­ogy, the nymph Daphne, pur­sued by an ar­dent Apollo, was changed into a lau­rel tree to pro­tect her virtue and, at Del­phi, those who con­sulted the prophet­ess and re­ceived a favourable an­swer could be crowned with a lau­rel wreath. A sym­bol of vic­tory in Clas­si­cal ath­letic games, bay branches con­tin­ued down the cen­turies to con­vey honours, still re­called in terms such as bac­calau­re­ate and poet lau­re­ate.

Al­though Lau­rus no­bilis has long been cul­ti­vated in Bri­tain for culi­nary, medic­i­nal and or­na­men­tal pur­poses (it read­ily trims into com­pact top­i­ary shapes), it orig­i­nally formed large forests across the Mediter­ranean basin, in times when the cli­mate there was more hu­mid. In mild, south­ern coun­ties, it flow­ers pro­lif­i­cally and self-sows from fer­tile seeds. KBH

Il­lus­tra­tion by Bill Dono­hoe

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