Saturday, September 8, 2012

Bay, Laurus nobilis

I’ve long envied those whose climate allows them to grow bay in the garden. The mild winters of recent years have allowed the occasional bay here and there in the greater Washington, D.C. area to survive long enough to put on some size – but until recently not in my garden.  Years ago an Eastern Shore  nursery advertised a form of bay which was said to be suitable for garden use in this area. I scribbled down the name of the nursery and then lost the information. When a famous local herb nursery moved from its Arlington location, I learned something else: a big bay had grown there outside for a long time. When I inquired about this at the new location of the nursery, I was disappointed to hear that rooted cuttings of that plant were not available. In fact, in asking around, I discovered that bay is not easy to propagate from cuttings. I don’t think I’ve ever seen domestically grown seed offered.

Several years ago my friend Alice showed up at an autumn meeting of our local rock garden group with an armful of trimmings from her bay. Her plant was about five or six feet high and grew out in the open near a porch in her Arlington garden. I took several of these trimmings and cut them into maybe ten six inch pieces for use as cuttings. I did not use rooting hormones, but the cuttings were inserted in a cold frame right away. It was a huge disappointment to watch these cuttings die off one by one during the winter. But one did not die; I have no idea why, because all of the cuttings got exactly the same treatment, but that one cutting not only survived the winter but rooted successfully and went on to grow well. This year it doubled its size and it is now about two feet high.

Of course I’m glad that it is growing so well, so well that I have not hesitated to harvest leaves for culinary use. But that growth poses a problem: the plant is still in the cold frame, and there is no way I’ll be able to bend it down to allow the cold frame to be closed. It will have to be dug out and replanted elsewhere. I have no idea where that elsewhere will be.

Elizabeth David mentions a bay leaf which got passed around family to family during the darkest days of the Second World War.

I’m very fond of frozen custard made with a base of bay-infused half-and-half, and infusing bay into the milk to be used for a white sauce is now standard practice in our kitchen.  

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