Remembering the bay tree


October 16, 2003

By Dorothy Ploeger

Victoria County Master Gardener


When I was a kid, I was riding horseback on the ranch and suddenly rode into a small clearing. In the center of the clearing was the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. It was well shaped with a single trunk, and it had beautiful green leaves and large white flowers. It looked like a magnolia, but the leaves were much smaller and the flowers were somewhat smaller. I was fascinated.


Upon arriving home, I described my find to Mother, and she concluded that it must be a bay tree. We discussed the area and the many plants growing there. There were mayapples, Turk's cap, Mexican plum, buttonbush, frostweed and the American beautyberry, all of which are indigenous to the area. I had endless hours of wonder exploring the natural surroundings.


I have always wanted a tree like that. Finally, decades later, I found one for sale in a nursery. I took it home and planted it with great expectations. Now, three or four years later, it is taller than I am, and it has many, many trunks. Of course, it does not have cattle eating off of it to reduce the width, and it has many, many leaves. I have invited family and friends to gather the leaves for seasoning. The leaves that are for purchase in the stores just cannot compare to the aroma and flavor of the leaves on my tree.


It has not yet bloomed, but I have hopes that it can be trained into a tree shape, and that someday it will be covered with the beautiful white blooms. Although I have not seen that bay tree of my youth again, it is still with me in my mind's eye.


In Goose Island State Park in Rockport, there are many bay trees. Some of them have branches that hang over the roadway. I have never seen any of these in bloom, but maybe I was not there at the right time. However, they seem to be very prolific there.


"Native Texas Plants - Landscaping Region by Region," written by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowski (Gulf Publishing), notes that "Sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana) has a usual height at maturity of 20 to 30 feet. It blooms in May and June with white, fragrant blooms 4 to 6 inches across. The range is low woods and swamps in East Texas and from Massachusetts to the Gulf of Mexico. The soil should be sand, loam, clay, acid. Poor drainage is OK. It will grow in dappled shade, part shade or full sun. In mild winters it will be almost evergreen."


This fragrant tree of beautiful blooms and abundant foliage might be the perfect choice for landscaping a farm homestead, a topic to be addressed by Master Gardener, Janie Varley, at the South Texas Farm & Ranch Show, Oct. 21-22. Three master gardeners will present topics of interest to gardeners from 1:30-2:30 p.m. both days at the Farm & Ranch Show's Garden Expo in the Victoria Community Center annex. Varley's tips will aid owners in landscaping an acre surrounding their farmhouses. She will suggest useful, pretty and tough plants, requiring scant maintenance, to beautify and enhance the setting. "I will be proposing a landscape for an approximately one-acre farm that will contain the elements of a low budget landscape with low maintenance, low water use and as deer resistant as possible," Varley says.


Other landscaping ideas to be presented at the Garden Expo will be addressed in Barbara Sparkman's program on the principles of xeriscaping, a concept that preserves water and protects the environment. According to Sparkman, "Xeriscaping doesn't need to be cactus and rock gardens. Instead, it can be cool, green landscapes full of beautiful plants maintained with water efficient practices."


The presentation, which will include slides and handouts, will address the seven principles of xeriscape landscaping - planning and design, soil analysis and preparation, practical turf area, appropriate plant selection, efficient irrigation, use of mulches, and appropriate maintenance.


The third subject at the expo, poisonous plants, will identify common hazardous plants that are growing in this area, as well as deadly items in yard and garden, that possibly could cause problems for pets and children. Master Gardener June Secrist will share her extensive knowledge of skin reactions in people caused by working with certain plants and the lung irritation hazard of breathing toxins from burning specific plants, such as poison ivy, poison oak, oleander and the chinaberry tree. "Some plants used for medicinal purposes, or gathered for food or tea, if utilized improperly, can be quite toxic," Secrist reports. "Plants that are safe for humans may be dangerous for cats, such as members of the onion family," she adds. Secrist will share medicinal plant information, destroy myths about some poisonous plants as well as offer a wealth of information through slides and printed materials.


Lovers of flowers, foliage and trees, including my favorite lovely ornamental sweet bay magnolia, may gain considerable expertise by attending the Garden Expo at the South Texas Farm & Ranch Show, free to the public.




The article "Remembering the Bay Tree," published Oct. 16 in The Gardeners' Dirt, inadvertently stated the sweet bay tree - Magnolia virginiana instead of the sweet bay tree - Persea borbonia var. borbonia, which is the sweet bay tree used for its aromatic leaf flavor used in soups. Both trees are commonly called Sweet bay and both do resemble a magnolia tree.