LAUREL (Laurus nobilis – Lauraeeae)

No tree has been as much praised for its elegance, fragrance and therapeutic properties as the laurel, sweet bay or bay laurel, to list but a few of its names in English. Laurus is a genus of unisexual, hardy, evergreen shrubs or trees which originates from Asia Minor, but has been well established in all the Mediterranean countries and further north for many centuries; the laurel tree was introduced to Italy before the time of Christ, for instance. It arrived in Britain around the sixteenth century, and can flourish, although it is smaller in size than in warmer habitats (where it can grow as high as 19m (65 ft). In Greece, wild bay trees are very common, as they are in south and west France.

The bay laurel has blackish green bark, and evergreen, shiny, lanceolate leaves which exude a wonderful aroma when crushed. The insignificant, creamy-yellow flowers form in clusters in April on both male and female trees, but it is only the female which produces the small blackish-blue berries. Other aromatic trees of the laurel family are the camphor laurel (Cinnamomum camphora) of south-east Asia, the Californian laurel or Oregon myrtle (Umbellularia californica), and the sassafras (Sassafras albidum) of the eastern United States. Laurus nobilis, the true laurel, must never be confused with the tree called the common laurel, which is an evergreen ornamental cherry (Prunus laurocerasus) and can be poisonous (the leaves contain a small proportion of prussic acid).

The Greek name of laurel – Daphne – salutes the nymph who, on being pursued by Apollo, asked the other gods to help. They turned her into the laurel tree which has, ever since, remained under the protection of all the gods in Olympus. The French, however, often call the tree the ‘laurier d’ Appollon’, and many sources speak of the tree as dedicated to Apollo, the god of music and poetry. The tree also became a symbol of military glory for the Greeks, and generals would encircle their heads with a crown of laurel and carry a twig in one hand. From this derives the British ‘Poet Laureate’, and the French baccalaureat. This latter originated in the Renaissance, when gifted scholars would be crowned with laurel as in days of yore. Other phrases in English are ‘to win or gain one’s laurels’, and ‘to look to one’s laurels’.

The Greeks also believed the laurel had powers of divination and prophecy, and that it could protect against thunder and lightning, evil and contagious disease. Asclepius, the god of medicine, was always depicted crowned with the magic leaves.

The Romans, too, believed laurel had great powers. Pliny’s Natural History records an amusing anecdote of how a white hen bearing a twig of laurel in its beak landed in the lap of Augusta, Caesar’s fiancée. This was considered very propitious, and the twig was planted and quickly became a very beautiful tree. Later, Caesar, triumphant in battle, wore a garland of leaves from the same tree – although many thought the crown was for another purpose, to hide his bald patch!

In medicine, the tree has been attributed with many therapeutic values from the very earliest times. Dioscorides considered the leaves to be vomitive, the fruit to be pectoral, and the roots to help dissolve kidney stones. Galen thought the tree to be a good remedy for liver complaints, stimulating and warming the vital functions. In the Middle Ages, St Hildegarde, the abbess of Bingen, described laurel as a universal remedy for a number of ailments, including fever, asthma, migraine, gout, palpitations, angina pectoris, and liver and spleen complaints. She also echoed some of the earlier beliefs: she claimed that it could keep evil ‘at bay’, and that people should wear it or go under its branches to protect themselves from thunder and lightning. A medieval French saying, quoted by Corneille in Horace, was ‘foudre ne chiet sur le lorier’ (‘lightning does not fall on the laurel’).


Description: The leaves are distilled to produce a greenish-yellow essential oil. It has an agreeable odour reminiscent of cajuputalthough the latter is softer and more acrid.
The principal constituents: Cineol up to 50 percent, and a-pinene, eugenol, geraniol, linalool, phellandrene, sesquiterpene and sesquiterpenic alcohol. Dangers: Because of the eugenol content, laurel oil can corrode metal. Do respect recommended quantities.


In illness
Last century, Dr Cazin classified laurel as a carminative, expectorant, diuretic and sudorific, and prescribed it for flatulence, slow and difficult digestion, asthmatic conditions and bronchorrhoea (a chronic form of bronchitis, with a great amount of phlegm). More recently Dr Leclerc recommended its use for chronic bronchitis, ‘flu and ‘flu fevers, dys¬pepsia, flatulence and virus infections; his remedy was an infusion of the leaves or berries.

I prescribe laurel tisanes for the ailments mentioned by Dr Leclerc.

Use 5 g (1/4 oz) leaves, 10 g (1/2oz) organic orange peel and 300 ml (1/2 pint) boiling water: infuse for ten minutes, strain and then drink with honey if required. It is a wonderful sudorific – promoting sweating ¬and can really help in the case of ‘flu.

To help counter rheumatic aches and pains, add 10 drops of laurel oil – or some fresh leaves – to a hot bath and relax for a while. After the bath, rub the affected areas with an oil made from 20 ml (4 tsp) grape seed oil and 12 drops laurel; wear a thick, warm dressing gown and lie on your bed for at least half an hour.

A soya and laurel oil is very useful for a stiff neck: add 5 drops laurel to 10 ml (2 tsp) soya oil and use to massage all over the neck until absorbed then wear a thick scarf for at least 20 minutes, resting your head on a pillow. You could use leaves as well: boil for 10 minutes, then dip a small towel or nappy in the liquid and place around the neck. Either of these remedies can also be used for sprains.
The essential oil can also be used for pediculosis, scabies and loss of hair after an infection.

In cookery
Bay laurel leaves may be used fresh, when they are rather bitter, or dried, when the aroma is still present but the bitterness has softened. (Really old bay leaves will taste of nothing at all.) Bay leaves are used in cooking all over the world, but particularly in Europe to flavour stocks, court bouillons, marinades, sauces, bouquet garnis, and in and on pate mixtures. The tej-pat of Indian cookery is not bay, as is so often thought, but dried cassia leaf (that of laurel’s not-too-distant relative, Cinnamomum cassia).

Bay can also be used in sweets, boiled in the milk for a pudding or custard, for instance.

Meat marinade
Marination helps tenderize meat of any sort, and using plenty of aromatics helps to prevent putrefaction.

  • 500 ml (18 floz) dry white wine
  • 1 sprig each thyme and savory
  • 4 -5 shallots
  • 3 – 4 bay leaves
  • 3 – 1- garlic cloves, slightly crushed
  • 2 cloves

Mix the wine, the herbs and spices together in a large bowl, and immerse the meat in it. Leave for 24 hours, and then drain, season, and cook in the normal way.

Other uses
Laurel leaves were used as a strewing herb in the time of the Elizabethans. Bay leaves are placed in boxes of figs to keep away weevils; and a leaf or two in jars of flour or pulses will similarly discourage insects at home.

Laurel essential oil has been and still is used in a great many medicaments, for bath lotions, and in antiseptic soaps, as well as in food flavouring, and perfumery. In veterinary practice, it is included in cleansing ointments for farm animals.

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