Spring arrives quite early in Southern California, and I am always excited when I feel the new welcome warmth and the smell of the newly turned earth...
In the distant past, Laurel or bay trees covered most of Europe in deep forests. Then the last ice age wiped most of them out, and today there are only a few natural stands off the coast of North Africa and on the islands near Galicia in Spain.
Nevertheless, Laurel or Laurus nobilis is grown today by gardeners almost universally. Laurus means praise, and nobilis means renown. There are many derivatives of the word Laurus. A few are, baccalaureate (berries of the Laurel), poet laureate, Laurentium in Italy, and of course the very popular woman’s name, Laura in the American South; we have at least five generations of “Laura” on my wife’s side of the family.
The Laurel has always signified distinction because it is associated with Apollo’s healing and power. It has garnered high-status since ancient times. Laurel wreathes were awarded to winning athletes at the Pythian Games. The most famous Laurel image, I think, is that of Dante Alighieri with the Laurel wreath ensconcing his severe yet noble visage. I love the Bernini marble in the Borghese Museum in Rome, that of Daphne changing before our very eyes into a Laurel tree as Apollo tries to ravish her. Daphne becomes chaste and eternally youthful as she metamorphizes into the safe world of plants. What a tremendously powerful statue of marble eloquence.
Laurels are very easy to grow in our Mediterranean clime. My one-gallon plant set out two or three years ago has now reached to over six feet. At this size, Laurels can be sheared into hedges or grown as standards of round or pyramidal form in pots, or in situ. The English are especially adept at these topiary forms.
Laurels can grow to sixty feet, but I have never seen one anywhere near that height although I’ve seen some large, vibrant ones in Cornwall. Twenty-five feet is the norm. All that they need is well drained earth, irrigation every two weeks (although they stand drought well), and one handful of 16-16-16 fertilizer in the spring. Insects and pests are almost non-existent because of the aromatic oil their leaves contain.
Dark green! That’s how they are, and I use them in tomato sauces for pasta, meats, and vegetables such as eggplants. Laurel leaves impart a dark, rich taste to the sauce or sugo. I first experienced this unique, planty taste in the stomach soothing teas that my nonna made for me when I was a very small child. I am sure that you came to the Laurel taste in similar ways as well.
One more thing—Inosculation. Laurels can be easily bent and twisted in ways that create various forms, usually spirals. Inosculated or “kissed” creations are quite unique as center pieces in our gardens. The cambian bark layers kiss and grow together. There is actually a museum of inosculations (some as chairs) in central California.
For me, Laurel trees in their leaf and scent and taste are wonderful reminders of the Mediterranean.