Sandy’s Garden ... Laurel at Christmas

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Quite early one Sunday morning I awakened and found myself unable to get back to sleep.

I tuned my bedside radio to BBC Radio 4 Extra and was rewarded with a radio play which turned out to be a very enjoyable pastiche on the lives of would-be members of the upper classes in rural Victorian society. The whole point of my switching the radio on was, however, entirely lost, for my intention had been to have some background words to stop me from thinking and so keeping myself awake: but I found myself listening intently to the play and consciously staying alert to hear what happened next. It was in this context that I heard the parish minister … always called the ‘padre’ by the retired military officers in his congregation … talk of the church being decorated for Christmas with laurel and ivy. And yes, the reference was repeated, allowing me to lay to rest the suspicion that I had misheard ‘holly and ivy’ as ‘laurel and ivy’. Laurel and ivy it most assuredly was.

The tree which we usually call the bay, as I now know, is the true laurel of ancient civilisations, the tree whose shoots were used to make the laurel wreaths which were bestowed on successful athletes and on emperors, the wreaths which are so often depicted in representations of Roman rulers, the wreaths which were misrepresented by the crown of thorns which was placed on the head of Jesus of Nazareth when he was crucified. That, however, is not the reason for the association of bay … or laurel, if you will … with the Christian celebration of Christmas. That has its origins in the beliefs prevalent among the Romans whom Saul of Tarsus … or Paul, as he preferred to be called after his conversion to Christianity … failed to convert to his beliefs. These pagan Romans believed that the bay tree was sacred to the mighty sun god Apollo, which explains its choice for the wreaths given to the most important citizens; and its association with the founder of Christianity may very possibly be a conscious, or even subconscious, use of the plant by the first adherents to Christianity to recognise their leader. It has also been suggested that the tree sacred to the sun god may, by a play on words, have been associated with the son of God: but I suspect that this verbal link, which only works in the English language, is a much more recent invention.

This true laurel of classical Rome needs care if it is to be grown in the United Kingdom. Its botanical name is Laurus nobilis, meaning ‘the notable laurel’; and its natural home is in the Mediterranean region. This is the tree from which we obtain bay leaves, those essential additions to the culinary enthusiast’s kitchen. It is surprisingly hardy as a plant … we have one growing in our garden: but is very susceptible to a combination of icy north-easterly winds and frost and most Scottish gardeners would do well to grow it in a very large pot which can be taken into shelter to be overwintered or find a sheltered spot in the garden … as we have done … where it is protected from winter’s icy blasts. Nothing can realistically be done to prevent frost damage to the leaves of plants which are kept out of doors.

These winter-damaged leaves probably explain why Prunus laurocerasus, properly called the cherry laurel but very often called simply ‘laurel’, was formerly used instead of Laurus nobilis in Christmas decorations based on plants. And, though laurel’s associations with Christianity are pretty tenuous, it’s an attractive foliage plant, it grows happily in these islands and it’s available at Christmas. It seems to me to be rather sad that we use so much artificial greenery in Christmas decorations nowadays; and I may just use some of my own Laurus nobilis in my home this festive season, provided the frost hasn’t damaged the leaves too badly.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society