OF THE WEEK
Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
Bay Laurel, Bay Leaf, Sweet Bay, Bay, Sweet Laurel
Scientific name: Laurus nobilis
of scientific name:
- the ancient name for this
- Latin for noble or famous
Most people are familiar
with Laurel on their kitchen’s spice rack, where it is known as bay leaf.
The aromatic leaves are used extensively in cooking, from sauces and
stews to puddings.
Laurel is an evergreen
tree, reaching a height of 40 feet in its native Mediterranean habitat.
It now has a worldwide distribution, having been introduced into England
in the 15th century and into North America in the 17th
century. Often grown as a shrub in
pots to be moved indoors in areas with cold winters, Laurel can only tolerate
light frosts. The stiff, dull, dark
green leaves of the plant are 1 to 3 ½ inches long, and can be picked at any
time for cooking purposes. The
plant produces yellow, inconspicuous flowers in the spring, with male and female
flowers found on separate plants. The
females go on to develop dark purple berries about ¾ inch long.
|A close-up of a Laurel growing in one of Union County College's greenhouses.|
Although Laurel shares
its common name with other species (Cherry Laurel, Mountain Laurel, and Sheep
Laurel), it is not related to these poisonous-leaved plants.
As one could imagine, a great deal of confusion arises when the subject
of Laurel leaf toxicity comes up.
Laurel has given its
name to the Laurel family of plants (Lauraceae).
Within this family of over 2000 species are a number of aromatic plants,
including Sassafras, Spice-Bush, Cinnamon-Tree, and Camphor-Tree.
The Avocado, with its anise-scented fruits, is also a member of
Besides its use as a
spice in cooking, Laurel has a long history of use by people.
The leaves contain an essential oil used in perfumery.
The fruits contain lipids that are made into laurel butter which is used
in human and veterinary medicine as laurin ointment, and as a sweat-inducing
ingredient in aromatic baths. The
fruits can be distilled to make a liqueur called Fioravanti.
Probably the most
fascinating aspect of Laurel is its historical significance as an illustrious
and symbolic plant. In ancient
Greece Laurel was sacred to Apollo and, as such, was used to form a crown or
wreath of honor for heroes, scholars, and poets (Apollo was the god of poets).
Laurel became the symbol of triumph in Rome as well as in Greece.
The term “laureate” derives from this tradition.
In England the word laureate came to signify eminent.
“Poet laureate” arose in England as a position of poet to the royal
household beginning with Charles I in 1617.
Some believe that “bacca-laureate”, the name for the university
degree of bachelor, owes its origin to this revered plant.
Laurel leaves were
strewn on the floors of homes of distinguished persons during the reign of
Elizabeth I. Up until the 18th
century, Laurel was believed to be associated with the divine power of
purification and protection. It was
set before the doors of Greek houses and was used by the Romans as a guardian of
the gates of the Caesars. The
emperor Tiberius always wore a wreath of Laurel during thunderstorms, believing
that lightning could not strike it. Greeks
and Romans valued Laurel so highly that it was forbidden to use it for a
“profane” purpose such as firewood.
Today, Laurel is
occasionally seen as a potted herb or indoor shrub in our area.
It propagates readily from cuttings, tolerates neglect, and does well
when put outdoors for the summer. A
few leaves can be harvested occasionally for seasoning, and for the
superstitious, it just might keep away evil spirits.