Bay Tree

BAY TREE (Pimenta acris – Myrtaceae)

The bay tree, or bayberry tree, originated in South America, but is now cultivated in the Antilles, Mexico, Venezuela, Barbados and Jamaica. This is not the culinary bay, which is a laurel; neither is it the bayberry shrub, wax myrtle or Myrica pensylvanica, from which early American set¬tlers made candles. It is, however, closely related to Pimenta 0fficinalis, the tree which produces allspice berries, also known as whole-spice, Pimento and Jamaica pepper. The tree is small and erect – 7.5 – 9 m (25 – 30 ft) in height – and has a smooth greyish bark, and oval, aromatic, green leaves. It, too, bears berries. Another relation, the P. acris, var. citrifolia, has lemon-scented leaves.


Description: This is distilled from the dried leaves and the berries of the bay tree, and the most esteemed oil comes from St Thomas in the Virgin Islands. The oil is amber to brown and has quite a strong smell, similar to clove. It is difficult to find the best quality as bay oil is so often adulterated with turpentine or pimento, or even with clove and there is little distinction in smell between the pure and the adulterated oils.
The principal constituents: As much as 65 -70 per cent of the oil comprises phenols (chavicol, eugenol, methyl eugenol); other constituents are myrcene and phellandrene, with some citral. Danger: Eugenol can corrode metal, so use the oil with care.


In illness
The properties of the essential oil are much the same as those of clove or laurel. In addition, because of the high proportion of phenols, bay oil is a good antiseptic for the respiratory system, for the nose, throat and lungs, recently confirmed in research done in 1930 by Rideal and Walker. It is also a good tonic.

In beauty
The major use of bay oil is as a remedy for hair loss. The bay rum used as a hair-wash and hair-dressing by men in Victorian times was a liquid obtained from distilling the leaves in rum. Many hair recipes and shampoos contain the essential oil, most of the cultivated (and wild) leaves going to America for that purpose. A great deal of the oil is used locally, so if you ever travel to South America or the Caribbean, do buy some. Use it to make a remedy for hair loss, for greasy hair or a flaky scalp, or to give vigour and lustre to fragile hair. Mix 100 ml (4 fl oz) alcohol of 40 – 60 degree proof with 25 ml (1 fl oz) purified or mineral water and 3 ml (a scant tsp) oil of bay. Massage into the scalp before shampooing. Alternatively make a strong decoction of the leaves by boiling 10-12 leaves in 600 ml (1 pint) water for 5-10 minutes. Cool, add 20 ml (4 tsp) white or dark rum and store in the fridge. Use as a scalp rub.

Other uses
The essential oil, with its good masculine smell, is used to perfume shaving soaps, which will be antiseptic as well. It has always been one of my favourite oils, and is a constituent of a toilet soap I formulated for a major London hotel. It is so smooth that many male guests use it as a shaving cream.

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