Laurus nobilis, the Noble Laurel
This text focusses on the history and lore surrounding the bay leaf and the tree it comes from, focussing on European influence from the Roman era to our current time. This piece is accompanied by a series of 8 gouache paintings of bay leaves made over the time that the essay was being written.
The Romans called it “the plant of the good angels,” and Pliny counts 69 uses for the tree. Culpeper celebrates its potency against witchcraft and devilry alike, and in Shakespeare’s Richard II, the king's death is marked by the withering of its leaves. Steeped in history and shrouded in lore, the bay tree is a staple of both our culture and cuisine.
When it comes to celebrating achievements, the noble roots of Laurus nobilis stretch back millennia. The Ancient Greeks believed the bay tree was born of unrequited love when, in her attempts to evade Apollo’s unsolicited advances, the nymph Daphne was turned into a laurel by her father, the river god Peneus. Apollo, smitten with the plants beauty, whenceforth proclaimed its branches would be awarded as the greatest accolade in Greek society.
Subsequent cultures adopted these beliefs: triumphant Roman commanders were haloed in laurel chaplets, and its legacy lives on symbolically in our contemporary awards. An exceptional film will be stamped with a wreath, and whether Nobel or poet - to be a laureate means to be “crowned with bay.” And if one peaks too young; they can rely on their past successes for continued recognition and “rest on their laurels.”
When it came to the plant's powers, the Romans believed bay would ward off thunder and lightening due to its resistance to flame, though more recent beliefs held that burning bay would bring back an errant lover. Caesar would have done well to burn his laurel crown to retain Brutus’ loyalty. Indeed if a leaf was split between sweethearts, as long as the halves were kept safe: so would be the relationship.
In his CE 79 work Naturalis Historia, the 69 complaints for which Pliny prescribes bay include all manner of maladies: for use as an emetic or for those phlegmatic, and as effective against contagion as it is conducive for womens courses. One and a half millennia later, Culpeper continues to praise bays’ potency, particularly when it comes to the female constitution. Bathing in a decoction of its leaves and berries will alleviate menopause and assist those “troubled with the mother, or the diseases thereof,” and seven leaves given to a woman in labour affords her a speedy delivery. In fact so efficacious did Culpeper believe bay to be in assisting childbirth, that he recommends the plant is best avoided for a woman in gestation, “lest they procure abortion.”
In more recent - and somewhat more legitimate - applications, bay leaves discourage the growth of mould, and have been used as a natural pesticide - leading them to be used by entomologists in their killing jars - the vapours dispatching the specimen with minimal corporal damage. As regards laurels’ place in modern medicine, there is limited research into its efficacy. Not native to the UK, bay is fully naturalised: the first records of its cultivation here dating back to 1592. Although considering its importance in Roman culture, it is surprising it did not arrive with their conquest of the British Isles.
Personally, I find it apt that its leaves once crowned kings, for in my kitchen bay governs most dishes I cook. Fragrant and complex yet sweet and delicate, it is a profoundly versatile herb - a versatility that earns it a coveted spot in many a bouquet garni. For though there are no rules about what officially constitutes this bundle of herbs, I believe most stews will agree: the bay leaf is essential.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, (1985) by Culpeper, N. Hertfordshire: Omega
Herbarium, (2016) by Hildebrand, C. London: Thames & Hudson
The Folklore of Plants, (2019) by Baker, M. Oxford: Shire Classics
Plant Magic, (2020) by Oakley Harrington, C. London: Treadwells’ Books
Naturalis Historia, (CE79) by Pliny the Elder. [Available from: https://bit.ly/2LWW857]
Laurus Nobilis and Bay leaf, by Wikipedia. [Available from: wikipedia.org]