You often see shaggy old bay trees growing in the gardens of cottages and farmhouses in the West Country. Their chief purpose was not to flavour a stew but to protect the place against witches, which is why you find them planted so close to the houses. We've been lucky to have inherited old bay trees in both the places we've lived in Dorset. The one in the rectory garden was by the front gate, a tangle of suckering growths that, unchecked, had pushed through the ivy to make an impenetrable evergreen thicket.
There is one in our present garden too, almost as big, and suckering in the same profligate way. Its branches spread at least 20 feet high and wide. Hoping the witches weren't watching, we gradually reduced its spread, by taking off a branch a year. But it still cast too big a shadow, so a few years ago we turned it into a massive topiary ball. I'm amazed at how easily it accepted this onslaught and how generously it leafed up to fill in the gaps. It's the first thing you see when you turn into the yard. Witches of course would see it from a different perspective, but I don't think they could miss it. It's still very big.
The ability to protect has been stitched into accounts of the bay tree since Greek and Roman times. The Roman historian Pliny mentions it and it was perhaps the Romans who first brought it into Britain. It's better adapted to a Mediterranean climate than to ours and is not considered to be reliably hardy in this country. I noticed that the rectory bay had unusually large, broad, shiny leaves with smooth rather than crinkled edges. So has the tree that we inherited here. You'd imagine that these large leaves would make the tree more prone to damage by frost than the type you usually find in garden centres, which has relatively narrow, dull dark leaves with wavy edges. But it doesn't.
When we first came here, we brought with us eight lollipop bay trees planted in half barrels (they were not popular with the removal men). I'd originally acquired them from the Columbia Road Sunday market in London, where you could often find expensive stuff such as topiary bay trees cheaper than anywhere else. But like most bay, these had been imported from Italy and had the dullish, narrowish, crinkled leaves typical of the imported trees.
I'd bought them to help decorate a tent for a wedding, but by the time we arrived here they had grown pretty large, and the barrels dried out quite quickly. I got tired of worrying about watering them and, with the help of our brilliant sack truck, we got them up the bank and planted them out along the back of the flower garden.
Then came the tough winters, during one of which, even here in the West Country, the temperature did not rise above freezing point for three weeks. And there were some horrific gales, which for evergreens are almost more of a problem. The bought-in trees suffered badly (though they have since recovered) and I had to cut out whole branches that had completely died back.
But the big old bay in the yard scarcely noticed the weather. A few leaves browned at their tips. That was all. So it made me wonder whether selection by generation after generation of growers has given us a strain of bay that is hardier than the norm?
They call them "land-race" plants, plants that have evolved over time after being selected for particular traits. A study of the vegetables grown in Alpine valleys, geographically quite close, but physically cut off from each other, showed how things such as carrots and cabbages gradually developed completely different characteristics in each valley.
Generally, different traits in a plant are seized upon by nurserymen and plantsmen and given different names, which is why there are nearly 2,000 different hostas in cultivation and some 300 different oaks.
But in the RHS Plant Finder you'll find very few different kinds of bay. There's a golden one (yuk), a variegated one (double yuk) and a narrow-leaved one. No other selections are named and bays are mostly lumped together under the name Laurus nobilis. There's one other species, L. azorica, native, as the name suggests, to the laurel forests of the Azores, the Canaries and Madeira. But various ice ages wiped that species out across mainland Europe, so we have just the one type left.
That's partly why there are so few named varieties. That list of oaks in the Plant Finder includes more than a hundred different species, so there is naturally a greater variation in the way they look and behave. The chief benefit to anyone growing bay in Britain would have been hardiness, which doesn't necessarily affect the way a tree looks.
No one who cooks can be without bay. Even before Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson started going on about bouquet garni (a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme and a stalk of parsley tied in a little bundle), bay had long been used in English dishes, mostly as an infusion. It's unusual in that you don't eat it, as you do most other herbs (indeed, it can in some circumstances even irritate the stomach if ingested). You just borrow its flavour and its mouth-watering aroma.
If you have a good-sized tree, you can cut a branch to throw on a barbecue, which gives a superb flavour to grilled lamb. But mostly you'll be using it a leaf at a time, so a small tree in a pot may provide all you need. Bay is particularly good infused in the milk with which you are going to make a cheese sauce. I generally crush or twist the leaf first so that it releases more of its flavour.
Although bay trees look wonderful in pots, they will grow more happily in the ground. Choose a place with some protection from wind. If you have a trained tree, such as a lollipop or pyramid, clip it to shape any time this month or next.
WHAT TO DO
* If necessary, prune old-fashioned shrub roses that will neither have a repeat flowering season later in the summer nor bear hips in autumn. Shorten back flowered shoots to a healthy bud or side shoot. Take out entirely any poor straggly growth and branches that are rubbing against each other.
* Summer-prune fruit trees by shortening side shoots on plums. Wall-trained pears and apples may also need attention. Shorten lateral growths to allow the sun to ripen fruit.
* Gather herbs such as rosemary and thyme, and hang them in bundles to dry in a cool, airy place.
* Prune philadelphus by taking out some of the old flowered wood. Aim to remove about a third of the old stems entirely. In this way, you recycle the bush every three years, promote a constant supply of new wood (which flowers more freely than old wood), and keep the thing to a manageable size.
WHAT TO SEE
* Joe Archer, who starred in the TV series 'Kew on a Plate', has this month been leading free tours of the kitchen garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The last takes place next Friday at 2.30pm. Normal entrance applies. Call 020 8332 5655 or go to kew.orgReuse content