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Bay trees make wonderful slow-growing hedges or clipped specimen plants. Heronswood, Dromana

Sweet bay (Laurus nobilis ) was seen by the old herbalists as a virtuous tree which “resisteth witchcraft very potently”. The Greeks dedicated it to Apollo, the sun god. The Delphic priestesses, oracles of Apollo, held bay leaves between their lips as they made prophesies. In Greek and Roman cultures victors, heroes, academics and artistic figures were rewarded with a wreath or crown of bay leaves. This gave rise to the terms ‘baccalaureate’ and ‘poet laureate’.
Bays are unusual in the world of herbs in that, given the right conditions, they can grow into large trees, sometimes as high as 20 metres. They are usually slow growing and with careful pruning make excellent lawn specimens, topiary trees, pot plants or hedges. To grow a bay as a standard or topiary specimen, remove any suckers from the base as well as all the lower branches, leaving only about six branches at the top. After this, continue to remove any suckers that appear and prune the branches at the top, into the desired shape, twice during the following and each subsequent summer.
Bays are lovely, evergreen aromatic plants with shiny, dark green elliptical leaves. Male and female flowers grow on different trees but all are greenish yellow and fairly inconspicuous. The flowers on female trees, once fertilised, develop into dark purple berries. Bays grow in most soils as long as the drainage is good, but like lots of sun and protection from harsh winds and especially cold winds. Young trees will not tolerate frosts but become more frost resistant as they grow.
New bay trees can be grown from seed, cuttings, or by detaching suckers. As seeds rarely germinate unless conditions are ideal (which includes constant temperatures around 24°C) and cuttings of semi-ripe shoots taken in summer can take up to 6 months to develop roots, the average herb gardener is probably better off buying an established plant or taking a sucker from an existing tree.
Bay leaves can be used either fresh or dried, but remember that the fresh leaves have a stronger flavour. The leaves are most commonly added whole to soups, stews, casseroles and meat sauces and removed before serving. Leaves are used either on their own or combined with other herbs as part of a bouquet garni. The combination will vary depending on the dish. For example, a bouquet garni for a beef dish could consist of one bay leaf and a sprig each of parsley stems, thyme, sage and sweet marjoram, tied together in a bunch.
Placed in food containers one or two bay leaves will prevent moths and bugs from infesting flours and cereals, and fresh bay leaves put between the pages of a book will help to repel silverfish. In fact the whole tree is disease and pest resistant and will protect other plants in the area from many insect pests.
The bay tree has been credited with numerous medicinal properties over the centuries, but is probably most useful now as an oil that is rubbed into aching limbs and muscles to bring relief. Combine 50 g of crushed leaves (either fresh or dried), 300 ml of olive oil and one tablespoon of white vinegar in a screw topped jar. Leave it in a warm place, shaking regularly for three weeks. Strain and add two or three fresh leaves, leave for another week and then use when needed.
Bay trees are supposed to protect us from devils, witches, thunder, lightning and bush fires so obviously no garden should be without one.

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A small bay tree planted with other herbs in an elevated herb garden

If by chance you are female, single, looking for a mate and despairing of more conventional methods of finding one, then you could try the following technique that was once popular in Devon, England. On the evening before Valentine’s Day select five fresh bay leaves and pin them to your pillow, one in each corner and one in the middle. Now lie down with your head on the pillow and say seven times

Sweet guardian angels, let me have
What I most earnestly do crave—
A Valentine enbued with love,
Who will both true and constant prove.

Each time you say the verse you need to count to seven, seven times. If you follow these instructions carefully then your future husband will appear to you in a dream. Unfortunately the instructions don’t tell you how to actually ‘catch’ this husband, or what to do if you don’t like the look of him! — PW