Champaign-Urbana Herb Society
Herb of the Month - Bay Laurel - October 1998
BAY LAUREL (Laurus nobilis)
Sometimes called sweet bay, sweet laurel, Grecian or Roman laurel, it is from the lauraceae family. Other members include avocado, cinnamon and nutmeg. Bay laurel is an ancient evergreen shrub or tree of the laurel family. It has purple black berries and leathery aromatic leaves that take well to formal clipping. Bay is a tree of the sun that is native to southern Europe and Asia Minor. The 16th century herbalist John Gerard noted that bay trees grow naturally in Spain, where they can reach 40 to 60 feet.
Here in the US, bays can be grown as standards in pots which rarely grow taller than 6 to 8 feet, but must be wintered inside for protection from winds and hard frosts. Grow them indoors and you will have a wonderfully aromatic plant, not to mention fresh bay leaves all year long. Bays like moderately rich, well-drained soil and plenty of sun. Do not take potted bays outside again until danger of frost has passed.
Culinary uses of bay are through the leaves which can be cut fresh from a plant or used dry in soups, stews, casseroles, stocks and puddings. The most famous use of bay in the kitchen is in the classic seasoning mixture of a bouquet garni which consists of bay leaf, thyme, marjoram, parsley and black peppercorns all tied together in a muslin bag and infused in savoury dishes. In England, a bay leaf is traditionally added to a baked sweet rice pudding at the beginning of cooking where it imparts its peppery flavour.
In ancient times, bay laurel was considered therapeutic for a great many ailments, particularly arthritis and to help with menstruation. The 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper recommended bay to treat "all griefs of the joints and wombÉand cause a speedy delivery in sore travail of childbirth." He also claimed the herb would treat worms, cough, itching, shortness of breath, infectious diseases and "all griefs of the nerves, arteries, and belly." In the Middle East, a tincture of bay in brandy was rubbed on sore joints and taken internally to induce labour and abortion. American Indians and early colonists used bay to promote labour and menstruation and to treat arthritis, headaches, urinary problems, insect bites and stings. By the 19th century, bay fell out of favour as a healing herb and the King's American Dispensatory concluded, "All that remains of this ancient medication is the use of the oil for rheumatic [arthritis] pains." Nowadays bay can be added to bath water as an infusion to promote relaxation at the end of a stressful day. It can also be used for any cockroach infestation, as the chemical cineole in bay repels them. The leaves should be crushed and placed in kitchen cupboards and under the sink.
Most famously, bay is known from ancient Greece and Rome for making wreaths to crown winning emperors. Legend says that Daphne was loved and pursued by Apollo, who was charmed by her beauty. One day, as he was about to capture her, she prayed to the gods for help; they took pity on her and turned the mountain nymph into a bay tree. But Apollo's love for her was constant. From that moment on, he wore a wreath of laurel from his sacred tree, and he decreed that poets, victors and all those who create beauty should be given laurel as their prize. The academic term "bachelor's degree" is derived from the Latin bacca-laureus, meaning "laurel berries," while unmarried men are called bachelors because at one time they were thought to be so absorbed in scholarly pursuits that they avoided marriage for fear of being distracted from their studies!
Thanks to Jane Flaxington for this report and to her sources: The Potted Herb by Abbie Zabar, The Healing Herbs by Michael Castleman, and The New Age Herbalist by Richard Mabey.
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