By Maryann Readal
Bay laurel, Laurus nobilis, The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for February, has been a symbol of achievement, power, and victory from early Greek and Roman times until our present day. The origin of laurel as a symbol rests with Apollo and his love for the nymph Daphne. Unfortunately, the love was not mutual and at her request, the gods turned Daphne into a laurel tree to protect her from Apollo’s advances. Apollo loved the laurel tree and decided to use it as a sign of achievement. The Greeks called the bay laurel tree Daphne.
Early Olympic Game winners were awarded laurel garlands, and Greek poets and musicians wore laurel wreaths. Romans adopted the symbolism and crowned their emperors with leaves of laurel. To this day, the crowns of some European monarchs incorporate the laurel leaf.
An early belief was that the laurel tree was fireproof and could deter lightning strikes. Therefore, laurel trees were planted near doorways or sprigs of laurel were hung in doorways to prevent fire. Nicholas Culpeper in his Complete Herbal said, “neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightning, will hurt a man where bay tree is” (Mieseler, 2009).
Today, we use terms such as poet laureate and Nobel laureate, both describing someone who has achieved a high honor in their field. We are familiar with the phrase “resting on one’s laurels,” which means that someone who has achieved much can rest on their achievements and need not do more. “Our word baccalaureate comes from the custom of crowning young doctors of medicine with laurel leaves and berries, bacca lauri,” notes Theresa Mieseler (2009). Laurel branches are still used as a part of graduation ceremonies in some colleges and universities worldwide today. A laurel wreath is awarded to the winner of the Grand Prix. You will also see the laurel wreath on coins and on the emblems of nations. Its symbolism is meaningful.
The Victorians adopted the laurel as a symbol of never-ending love. My own wedding ring is a circle of laurel leaves, which I did not realize the significance of until researching for this article. The bay laurel motif has also been used in architecture. This herb is a part of our culture without us even realizing it.
Laurus nobilis is a plant that prefers a warm climate. It was thought to be native to the Mediterranean area; however, genetic testing shows that its origin is in the Middle East. In my USDA Zone 8b garden, I can grow bay in the ground year round. But to be safe, it should be grown as a container plant, unless you are willing to test it in the ground in zones less than 8. It is an evergreen tree or shrub depending on how it is pruned, and can reach a height of eight to ten feet or more. It likes full sun or partial shade. It is dioecious, meaning there is a male plant and a female plant, and its small yellow flowers bloom for only a few weeks in the spring.
Propagating bay takes patience as it is very slow to germinate and grow. The Herb Society of America’s guide to bay offers a method for propagating bay laurel.
The ASPCA cautions that bay laurel is toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. Caution is advised when purchasing other plants with laurel in the name, such as mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). These are not in the same family as bay laurel and are poisonous.
We grow bay laurel as a source of fresh leaves for cooking. It is one of the herbs in bouquet garni and is used to flavor soups, sauces, stews, and roasted meats and fish. It is sometimes boiled in milk or cream to flavor puddings. Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay call it a “liaison” herb because it helps to blend flavors together (Mieseler, 2009). It is best used in recipes requiring a long cooking time. The leaf does not soften with cooking and should be removed before serving. California bay, Umbellularia californica, can be used as a substitute for bay laurel in cooking; however, its flavor is stronger than Laurus nobilis.
Bay laurel branches are pliable and lend themselves to making wreaths. The leaves are also used for potpourri. Many of us remember the old-fashioned way of keeping flour and grains insect-proof by adding a bay leaf or two to the container. The essential oil of bay is used in perfumes and soaps.
Of course, bay has had many uses as a medicine throughout history. A renowned use has been for treating rheumatism. It has also been used in traditional medicines to treat stomach issues, gas, and respiratory ailments.
Recent studies focus on its antiviral and antibacterial properties, particularly effective for treating MRSA (Otsuka, 2008). A recent article in Environmental Chemistry Letters hypothesizes that a possible reason for a lower incidence of COVID mortality in southern Italy may be due to extensive forests containing bay laurel. The emission into the air of immuno-modulating volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in bay laurel are suggested as a reason (Roviello, 2021).
For more information and recipes for bay laurel, please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for February. The Society’s Guide to Bay also contains information about this herb.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Photo Credits: 1) Bay laurel as a small tree (Erin Holden); 2) Julius Caeser (Mithrandire, Creative Commons), Princess Lilian of Sweden (Public Domain), and George Washington (Public Domain) with laurel crowns; 3) World Health Organization flag (Public Domain) and laurel wreath for a graduate student (Archeologo, Creative Commons); 5) Bay laurel in flower (Maksim, Creative Commons); 6) Bay laurel trees flanking a doorway at Greifenstein Castle (Reinhold Moller, Creative Commons)
ASPCA. n.d. Bay laurel. Accessed 1/7/22. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants/bay-laurel
Dyer, M. 2021. Are some bay leaves toxic-learn which trees are edible. Accessed 7/7/21. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/herbs/bay/which-bay-trees-are-edible.htm
Gaumond, A. 2021. Essential guide to bay laurel. Accessed 1/4/22. https://www.petalrepublic.com/bay-laurel-meaning/
Kowalchick, C. and W. H. Hylton, eds. 1998. Rodale’s illustrated encyclopedia of herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.
Mieseler, T., ed. 2009. Bay: An Herb Society of America guide. Accessed 1/7/22. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/1cd1802d-70ea-4fb8-a14b-4f4bb72e2435
Mieseler, Theresa. 2009. Bay earns laurels as Herb of the Year. The Herbarist: 75:27-30.
Otsuka, N. et al. 2008. Anti-methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) compounds isolated from Laurus nobilis. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin. 31:1794-1797. Accessed 1/10/22. https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/bpb/31/9/31_9_1794/_article
Roviello, V. and G. Roviello. 2021. Lower COVID-19 mortality in Italian forested areas suggests immunoprotection by Mediterranean plants. Environmental Chemistry Letters. 19:699-710. Accessed 1/4/22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32837486/
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.