Bay is an evergreen shrub (often referred to as a small tree) native to Asia Minor and areas around the Mediterranean. It has shiny oval leaves, pointed with dark green on top with a lighter underside. Flowers, which appear in clusters in the spring are yellow and are followed in female plants by small black or purple berries. In the wild it can grow up to 60 feet tall, but cultivated outside its native habitat it only reaches 3-10 feet in height.
This plant can be found in your grocery store as “bay leaves” and in your garden center as “laurel” or “bay laurel”. Always check the Latin name when buying plants, especially this one, as there are many “bays” and “laurels” out there, some that aren’t remotely related to this one. For example, Mountain Laurel Kalmia latifolia is poisonous while Bayberry Myrica pensylvanica has been used as a substitute for Bay laurel in cooking and has its own magical uses as well.
History and Folklore
Bay Laurel’s scientific name comes from the Latin Laurus meaning “verdant” and nobilis meaning noble, or of high rank.
The Greek word for Bay is dhafni, after the nymph Daphne who was changed into a bay laurel tree by Gaea (or her father Peneus, or herself, depending on who’s telling the story) to protect her from the unwanted advances of Apollo. The tree is sacred to Apollo and it is said that the Oracle at Delphi chewed the leaves and inhaled the smoke when seeking visions. It is also associated with honor and glory and kings, heroes, triumphant athletes, poets and other great men and women were crowned with it to signify their greatness in both ancient Greece and Rome. Garlands of bay laurel were traditionally bestowed upon the winners of the Pythian games in Greece and later the Olympic games (prior to the change, olive leaves were used).
Today, Grand Prix winners are given wreaths of laurel. The world laureate as in poet laureate and baccalaureate (lit “laurel berry”) and the term “to rest on one’s laurels” are additional reminders of the high status of this tree.
Laurel wreaths were worn for their protective properties. They were believed to protect against the anger of sky Gods and the Emperor Tiberius always wore laurel during thunderstorms to prevent his being struck by lightning. Doctors also wore laurel as it was considered helpful in curing nearly everything.
Bay laurel requires mild climates and will only grow well outside year-round in zones 8-10. It does make an attractive container plant, however, and doesn’t get too big. Folklore says that growing bay laurel as a houseplant will protect your home from lightning strikes and disease. It must have 4 hours of direct sunlight a day and be kept relatively cool. The soil should be rich and well-drained and allowed to dry out between watering but should receive a little extra water in the springtime. Bugs don’t seem to bother this plant too much. It makes an excellent hedge and responds well to pruning.
The plant can be propagated easily from cuttings.
Harvesting & Storage
Harvest the leaves as needed once the tree is established. This is one herb that’s better dried than fresh, as the fresh leaves are much more bitter. They may be pressed to dry as you would press flowers. Properly dried leaves are bright olive green. Store them in darkness in an airtight container. Throw them out after two years, or when they turn brown, whichever comes first.
Laurel is sacred to Apollo and is an appropriate decoration for any altar to him. Its spicy fragrance and association with the sun make it appropriate for any festival of the sun. Bay laurel is also associated with Aesclepius, Ceres, Zeus, Fides, Hermes and Cerridwen. It is considered masculine and is ruled by Leo, the sun and the element of fire.
Bay leaves can be used to asperge a space, object or person in preparation or as part of any ritual, a branch of many leaves may be used in a group situation.
Bay leaves may be added to any spell or potion designed to enhance psychic ability and is a great addition to a psychic dream pillow.
Laurel wreaths may be worn by healers during healing ceremonies and while treating the sick in order to increase the positive healing energy and protect against negative energy that may be hanging around the sick room. Bay leaf can also be burned in the sick room after the illness has passed to purify it and drive out any residual sickness vibes.
When you finally get rid of that roommate, ex-spouse or family member who you thought would never leave, sweep their footsteps out the door with a broom and then fumigate the house with bay to ensure they won’t return. Even if you aren’t really happy about them going, if you know it’s best for everyone, cleanse the home of their presence for closure.
Bay laurel may be carried to protect against any number of misfortunes and to bring luck in athletic competitions.
To ensure that you will see your lover again, and neither of you will be tempted to infidelity, go together to a bay laurel tree and pluck a leaf, break it in half and each keep one half.
It is said that if you write a wish on a dried bay leaf and then burn it and your wish will come true.
Bay leaf is very aromatic and holds it shape and fragrance well when dried making it a nice addition to many potpourris, wreaths, and other herbal crafts. It blends well in aromatherapy combination with bergamot, cedar, lemon, rosemary, and patchouli.
It can also be added to sachets to keep moths out of your closets. A bay leaf dropped in a bag of flour may also help keep bugs out of that.
It is also a useful addition to shampoos and is recommended for hair loss, dandruff, and greasy hair.
Bay laurel has verified bactericidal and fungicidal properties.
The essential oil can be added to massage oils for arthritis and muscle aches and pains. It can also be added to salves for bruises, itching and other mild skin irritations.
A poultice of the leaves and berries simmered till soft, can be placed on the chest to relieve head and chest colds.
A tea made of the leaves and/or berries aids in digestion helps to rid the body of impurities and makes a good general health tonic. It is particularly helpful to women who are having trouble urinating after childbirth. Pregnant women, however, should not use bay laurel beyond the little bit we might use in cooking.
Tea can also be used to calm the nerves.
Adding bay laurel to your bath tea aids with vaginal infections, perineal healing after childbirth and urinary tract infections.
Never never ever use the essential oil internally except under the watchful eye of an experienced practitioner.
Bay leaf is a popular culinary herb. It is slightly bitter and strongly aromatic. It shouldn’t be eaten whole, however, as the leaf has sharp edges that can cut your mouth, it doesn’t chew up well and can cause choking. Instead, add it to soups, stews, roasts, sauces and other dishes that simmer for a while and remove it just before serving or add to a bouquet garni. This allows the flavor to infuse into the dish. For a stronger flavor, the leaf can be crushed and added to dishes. It also makes a good pickling spice.
Laurel berries have a robust flavor all their own and can be used to flavor meats and sauces.
While most herbs should be added at the end of cooking for the best effect, bay imparts the best flavor when simmered for a long time. The leaf should be removed before serving.
There are many plants that are called laurel or bay that are not. The California bay tree Umbellularia californica is not the same plant, but has a similar flavor and can be used just like common bay laurel in many cases. It is also called California laurel, Oregon myrtle or pepperwood. Indian bay leaf Cinnamomum tejpata looks quite similar, but tastes more like cinnamon. West Indian Bay leaf is allspice.
Some similarly named plants are poisonous and should not be used under any circumstances. Mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, is one of these.
Always check the botanical name of any plant you use and never use one you aren’t absolutely sure isn’t exactly what you want.