I have been planting a bay hedge for a client. It has three immediate purposes. Firstly, it forms one boundary of a formal garden, the rest of which is in place. The straight run of dense, dark foliage is like a word at the end of a sentence, underscored for emphasis: the garden stops here. Secondly, it hides a large plastic tank which holds domestic heating oil. It excludes it from the formal garden whilst simultaneously carving off a useful area for rubbish bins, wheelbarrows, empty flowerpots, and all the other detritus with which we clutter our lives. Thirdly, a road lies beyond it. Large thick leaves such as bay’s have better sound-dampening properties than, for example, the needles of yew. Being evergreen, it will dampen sound the year round.
Next year, it will serve other purposes. In April, bay bears small, insignificant yellow flowers which are a valuable early pollen source for bees and other insects. Birds will nest in it, enjoying the protection and privacy of the dense foliage. My clients may pick leaves for use in the kitchen. I hope that on hot sunny days the dry, spicy fragrance of the foliage will mix with the sweeter scents of the flowers in the garden, enriching the olfactory experience.
The sun was shining when I delivered the bushes, and my client came out to see them. He broke into a smile – the smell of bay had conjured memories of his childhood in the Lebanon, ‘where bay is everywhere’, and of his grandmother adding stems of it to the laundry to scent it. Clever grandmother – the essential oils in the leaves can act as an insect repellent too.
Forests of Laurus nobilis once spread across the Mediterranean basin, only retreating when the climate became hotter and drier around ten thousand years ago. Pockets linger on in Portugal and Turkey, but I have never been fortunate enough to visit one. I am pleased to bring something from my client’s homeland to his home in this corner of England. I am sure it will thrive as he has done. Bay has a reputation for being unreliable in its hardiness, but I have known bushes survive successive nights of -10 Celsius without harm and I have no fear for this planting. It is remarkably tolerant of different soils too and can be grown in Herefordshire clay or the sandy loam of Norfolk. It dislikes cold, drying winds, but it is hardly alone in that.
Like yew, the dark evergreen foliage is the perfect backdrop for a statue. Unfortunately, my perfect statue is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. How much better it would be if it were in a garden! It is an extraordinary marble by the extravagantly talented Bernini. It captures the metamorphoses of the nymph Daphne, her raised hands already changed into laurel leaves as the rapacious Apollo reaches to grasp her. Her leaves became his victor’s wreath, and the rest, as they say, is history.