The nature of things
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