Laurus nobilis has many names: bay leaves, bay laurel, sweet bay, even Greek laurel. The laurel tree is a native of the Mediterranean. It has been grown since ancient times. The tree itself can be from 25-60 feet tall, depending on climate and zone. Laurel trees “migrated” to Europe in the 1600s, and the Americas with European settlement.
Bay laurel is hardy in zones 7-9. In some areas, bay laurel is cultivated to be a low-growing shade plant. If used in this manner, the plant can become invasive. Other places use bay laurel as topiary plants, made by creative pruning. It is easily shaped. In other zones, the tree is often grown in containers so it can be brought indoors in climates that have harsh winters. The tree does not like frost or snow, or anything under 20 degrees F. Containers can limit the size of the tree. When grown in containers bay laurel needs to be re-potted every two years.
Growing bay laurel is not difficult. The plant is slow growing and is easy to tend. It grows in most soil types. Smooth, olive green bark and lanceolate leaves make this evergreen popular. The wood has a wonderful scent and is used in art and marquetry. Bay laurel is diœcious. It needs both male and female plants to reproduce. Only the female bears fruit. The clustered, yellow flowers appear in spring. They are lovely and smell wonderful. Not many pests bother bay laurel. If your plant is attacked by aphids, treat it with an organic control.
Before you use or ingest the leaves of the bay laurel, make sure it IS bay laurel. There are many look-a-likes such as mountain laurel or cherry laurel (no relation to bay). Harvest the bay leaves from plants that are older than two years. Place the plucked leaves in a single layer, on a screen or parchment paper. Let dry for about two weeks. Keep in an airtight, dated, and labeled container. Store in a cool, dark place.
Laurel fruits are called berries. The pea-sized, kidney-shaped berries start out white, then turn red, and turn black as they ripen. The berries are sold by the pound at many herb stores. While the berry has many great external herbal uses, it is not wise to eat them. They are toxic and (depending on variety) contain cyanide. The berries are sweet smelling and are used in many potpourris and perfumes.
The Greeks believed that the god Apollo made untoward advances to a nymph named Daphne. Daphne’s father was the river god Ladon. Ladon protected his daughter by turning her into a laurel tree. Since that time, the leaves of the laurel tree have been held sacred. In Delphi at the temple to Apollo, the Oracle used laurel leaves in ceremonies and rituals. It was thought that bay leaves repelled evil. Hippocrates used the herb for all kinds of medicine, both internal and external.
The main uses have to do with pain management and relief. It is also a powerful emmenagogue and abortifacient. Do not use laurel internally if you are pregnant or nursing. Laurel should never be used with children. A poultice of the leaves does much in reducing bruising.
Eucalyptol, myrcene, eugenol, linalool, geraniol, and alphapene are the main ingredients in bay laurel essential oil. It’s used for aromatherapy, but needs to be used diluted into a carrier oil. In this manner, laurel oil is usually mixed with eucalyptus, ginger, juniper, lavender, rosemary… Other uses for laurel oil include perfumes and aftershaves, make up, and toiletries. Using the oil full strength can cause skin burning or irritation. Many people find they are allergic or sensitive to the oil. Use with care. Two common medicinal applications of the oil are as an arthritis ointment to relieve pain, and for use on boils to relieve pain and make them go away.
The leaves, sold fresh or dried, are used in the kitchen as a spice. The flavor enhances the food without adding sodium. They are added in conjunction with other herbs in a “bouquet garni” to flavor all kinds of dishes. The leaves, by themselves can be found in soups, stews, marinades, desserts, pickles, pâté, and a variety of meat dishes. Most of the time, bay leaves are put into the dish whole at the beginning of the cooking or marinating time. They are usually removed before the dish is served. The fresh leaves have a milder flavor than the dried leaves. Bay leaves are high in vitamin A, vitamin C, manganese, vitamin B6, iron, and calcium.
Note: Do not eat whole bay leaves. They cannot be digested well. Often they clog the digestive tract and cause real problems. It is therefore suggested that the leaves be removed from whatever you are cooking before eating the food.
In many cultures (besides Greek), dried bay leaves are ground into a powder. These include Indian curries, Thai, Caribbean, Pakistani, Philippine, and many Arabic dishes. In the ground state, bay leaf is used as a spice, either alone or with other spices. The ground version is stronger and more pungent in taste than just using bay leaves. Ground bay leaves are sold by the pound. However, quality of such products cannot be assured unless from a trusted or certified grower. We suggest grinding your own. One of my favorite ways to use ground bay is mixing equal parts of salt, black pepper, and ground bay leaves for a dry spice rub on chicken or game fowl before roasting. The bay brings a bright, woody flavor.
Fresh or dried bay leaves also have use outside the kitchen. They are a natural pest repellent and are used in pantries and larders to shoo-away moths, flies, cockroaches, and even mice. A bay leaf placed in airtight containers of rice, flour, oats, or whatever keeps the bugs away as well. Bay leaves are used to control or discourage mold growth in many laboratories.
Bay leaf has both antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fungal properties. The tea is taken internally to ease cold and flu symptoms. To 1 quart of water, add 3-5 dried bay leaves and ½ of a cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Let cool slightly and strain. The tea can also be added to a bath or used in a compress, for external, soothing, pain relief of sore muscles, arthritis, or skin irritations. Studies are being done to determine whether or not bay leaf is effective in treating some forms of diabetes. Bay leaves have a hypoglycemic affect. At present, the thought is that bay leaf lowers blood sugar levels. Care must be taken when using bay in this way.
Wreaths made of bay laurel have long been the symbol of victory and triumph. They were (and are) either horseshoe shaped or in full circles. The wreath is worn on the head or around the shoulders and is presented during a ceremony. Ancient Olympic athletes and military leaders were rewarded in their victories this way. Laurel is depicted in literature, poetry, food, medicine and art.