Herb Guide: Bay Laurel

Laurus nobilis

Also, Known As:

  • Bay Laurel
  • Sweet Bay

The herb known as the bay laurel or the sweet bay is native to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean region in general – it is a small evergreen shrub or tree. The early Greeks and Romans admired the bay laurel for its beauty and used the aromatic leaves in many different ways. Bay laurel possesses leathery leaves that are lanceolate and pointed in shape. The leaves also have the maximum oil content during early and mid-summer and this oil content tends to decrease in other seasons. The name “bay” is used to refer to several botanicals – for example, the West Indian bay – botanical name Pimenta racemosa, and the California bay – botanical name Umbellularia californica. Therefore, any of these plants can be called by the name “bay” in the existing herb literature; what is more, some other plants are also called ‘Bay’.

The solution made from the bay laurel is a very potent anti-dandruff rinse and can help a person suffering from excess dandruff in the hair. To prepare this herbal rinse, bring a quart of water to boil, to the boiled water add about three level teaspoons of crumbled bay leaves and let the leaves steep in the covered pot for about twenty-five minutes. The herbal tea can be strained and then refrigerated for later use. This herbal tea can be used to wash the hair when doing this, it is necessary to first rinse all the soap out of the hair using plain water. Once hair has been washed with water and soap, some of the liquid bay laurel tea can be poured onto the head and can be used to massage the scalp thoroughly. This initial massage with the herbal tea can be followed with similar rinses using few more ounces of the herbal tea; the tea must be worked well on to the scalp using the fingertips. The hair so treated can be left as such for about an hour; it must then be rinsed thoroughly using plain water. This treatment will be sufficient to keep dandruff from recurring if it is used faithfully every day on a long-term basis.

Disorders such as bronchitis and a hacking cough or other related chest complaints can be relieved by applications of a poultice made from the boiled bay leaves; the poultice must be rubbed into the chest and covered with a cloth.

To gain relief from swellings in the tendons, as well as to soothe arthritic aches and pains or muscle sprains – use the oil of the bay laurel as a daily rub. This oil can be prepared by heating some bay leaves in a little olive oil using very low heat on a stove, the leaves must be heated for about twenty minutes – the low heat is to ensure that the oil is not cooked or brought to burn and smoke in the pan. Once they are heated, the leaves can be set aside and allowed to simmer for some more time in the pan. The oil obtained from the leaves must be strained once and cooled, and this oil is to be used as rubbing oil for any of these conditions or for other problems such as lower backache, prominent and painful varicose veins and many other disorders.

The bay laurel was utilized in the performance of divination rites by the Delphic Oracle of Ancient Greece. The bay laurel has also been associated with other legends of the ancient world, the ancient Romans for example, believed that the sudden withering of a bay laurel tree would bode disaster for the household in whose garden the tree grew. The ancient Romans also made extensive use of the bay laurel leaves in medicine, they also used it as a spice and even a decorative garland was made from it for use in the festivities associated with the Saturnalia festival that was celebrated each December. The Greco-Roman gods Apollo and Aesculapius, who were gods responsible for healing and medicine, were also associated with the bay laurel and devotees made use of the plant in a worship of these two gods. The medications made from the bay laurel were believed to have extremely potent protective and healing effects. Ancient peoples typically drank an infusion made from the leaves for the warming and tonic effect it had on the stomach and bladder. In addition, a plaster made from the bay laurel leaves was used to bring relief from wasp and bee stings and other insect bites. Bay laurel leaves were mentioned in the writings of the Greek physician Dioscorides who lived in the 1st century AD, he said that the bay laurel bark “breaks [kidney] stones, and is good for liver infirmities.” Thus, we can see the many uses that the ancient peoples had for the bay laurel.

Plant Parts Used:

Leaves, essential oil.

Herbal Remedy Use:

Remedies made from the bay laurel are mainly used in the treatment of the disorders affecting the upper digestive tract and to ease all kinds of arthritic aches and pains affecting a person. The remedies made from the bay laurel also has a tonic effect and is good to have a settling effect on the stomach, the bay laurel remedy also stimulates general appetite and aids in the hastening the secretion of digestive juices in people with digestive disorders. The bay laurel leaves are also used as an ingredient in cooking, where they aid in the process of digestion and absorption of food in the stomach. Bay laurel leaves possess many of the same positive effects as seen in the spearmint – botanical name Mentha spicata, and the rosemary- Rosmarinus officinalis – especially in assisting in the breakdown of heavy foods, such as protein-rich meat. The onset of menstruation is also promoted by remedies made from the bay laurel. In addition, the essential oil obtained from the bay laurel is mainly employed as a friction rub for topical problems, this rubbing oil is prepared by first diluting the raw oil in carrier oil and it is then massaged on aching muscles and joints for a soothing effect. Bath water can also be infused with a decoction made from the bay laurel leaves to help ease aching limbs and muscles.

bay oil 3_4

The soap making industry also utilizes an essential oil obtained from the fruit of the bay laurel in the manufacture of some types of soaps. Bay laurel is a very hardy and strong plant; it is very resistant to all sorts of plant pests and common plant diseases. A bay laurel plant is said to protect even the other plants growing near it from all insect and pest-related problems. Bay laurel leaves are strongly aromatic and are used as natural insect repellents, dried bay laurel leaves are often used in silos to protect stored beans, grains from weevils and other grain eating insects. As it possesses both antiseptic properties as well as an aromatic scent, the bay laurel is often used as a strewing herb. The plant is very tolerant of clipping and pruning activities, it can also be grown as a screen or hedge plant in regions with the suitable weather for its cultivation outdoors. The wood of the bay laurel is also very sweetly scented and the smell does not wear off quickly even after a long period of time. The wood is employed in marqueterie work, it is also used to make walking sticks and as friction sticks to start fires.

Other medical uses

  • Altitude sickness
  • Tooth decay

bay laurel

Growing Bay Laurel:

The bay laurel is a native plant of the Mediterranean region. The plant grows best in damp and shady sites in gardens. As it is extensively used in many Mediterranean cuisines, the bay laurel is a very popular garden herb, especially in Europe. Leaves from the bay laurel are picked all year round and used in many culinary preparations.

The bay laurel can succeed in any kind of soil that is moderately fertile and well watered, though it tends to grow best in soils that retain moisture and are well drained. The bay laurel can also grow without problems in all types of dry soils. The bay laurel prefers exposure to full sunlight but can also grow well in sites with light shade. Bay laurel plants are fairly resistant to high winds; however, the plants suffer if exposed to extreme maritime contact or cold dry winds for long periods of time. Growing bay laurel plants may need protection from the cold during severe winters and the plant is not fully hardy in all areas of temperate countries such as Britain. In a dormant state, bay laurel plants are reliably hardy to temperatures of about -5°c, and can withstand occasional lows of up to -15°c – such low temperatures may lead to the defoliation of the tree but the tree usually recovers and brings forth new leaves late in the spring or by the summer. The plant botanists call the Laurus nobilis Angustifolia – Syn ‘Salicifolia’ – a little hardier and possess similar aromatic qualities. Many people also cultivate the bay laurel tree as an ornamental plant in gardens; the added bonus is such cultivated yields leaves that can be used to flavor food. The leaves of the bay laurel give off a sweet and aromatic scent when bruised. Bay laurel trees are also strongly resistant to all insect pests and plant diseases – this plant is notably resistant to the honey fungus. The beneficial properties of this plant species have been known since ancient times and many ancient peoples held the tree in high esteem. The ancient Greeks dedicated this plant to Apollo, the god of light, the plant also served as a symbol of peace and victory for the Greeks. The bay laurel was also utilized in making wreaths for ancient emperors, generals, and poets. The bay laurel is a dioecious plant and individual plants have a specific sex. If seeds are required, it is necessary to grow both the male and female plants in the garden.

The bay laurel can be propagated in three basic methods – by layering, sowing seeds or by taking cuttings from individual plants.

The ideal time to sow the seeds of the bay laurel is in the spring. Seeds are ideally sown in moist, but definitely, not water saturated compost seedbeds. When seeds are sown, the seeds must be placed on the surface of the soil and lightly covered using some dry compost. The container of the seedbed must be placed in the dark, the site must ideally be at a temperature of about 65˚F (21˚C) for germination to occur.

It is difficult to predict a successful germination, which is a rather erratic event and bay laurel seeds can take as long as three months to sprout out. However, the normal time for germination is about three to four weeks from the date on which the seeds are sown. The greatest hindrance to successfully growing the bay laurel from seeds lies in the fact that the seeds can rot before they germinate in the seedbed.

The stem cuttings can be done late in the summer and even early in the fall. Propagating this plant from cuttings is rather hard and successful growth using cuttings is not easy to achieve. To get the best cuttings, one must cut ripe shoots in lengths of 9 to 15cm – 4 to 6 inches, using a knife, the cutting must also include part of the main stem – the heel. Once the shoots have been cut to the desired length, they must be trimmed so only three or four leaves stay on the shoot, this cutting can then be planted in a small pot filled with potting compost. Each individual cutting that has been planted must be labeled and placed in a site without direct sunlight – ideally, a cold frame is the best solution. A heated propagating frame may also give a good chance of success, as high humidity in the ambient air is essential for the proper growth of the plant. Once they are planted in a site, cuttings give out roots within the span of a year or a little longer.

The process of layering the germinating plants is carried out as normal for all the seedlings. To correctly layer the growing plant, bend each stem down to the ground then use a penknife and make a small cut in the stem in the spot touching the soil. The cut region of the bent stem can then be covered with some soil and secured in the soil using stones or it can be held in place with wires. The cut region of the stem will give offshoots in six to twelve months if the process has been correctly carried out. Bay laurel plants are ideally layered during the spring season.

Components of Bay Laurel:

Bay laurel leaves have an essential oil that is about 0.8 to 3% of the volume of each leaf. The oil chemically consists of mainly 1, 8 cineol at about fifty percent of the total. In addition, compounds such as eugenol, geraniol and terpineol , acetyl eugenol, methyl eugenol and phellandrene, linalool, α- and β-pinene are also found in substantial amounts. Leaves also have large amounts of plant mucilage, tannins, and resins.

The bay laurel also produces fruits and dried fruits also have up to 0.6 to 10% of essential oil by total volume, this content of the oil is dependent on provenance and the condition in which the fruits were stored. The aroma given off by the fruits similar to the leaves is mainly due to the content of a class of compounds called terpenes – such as cineol and terpineol, α- and β-pinene, citral. In addition, aromatic compounds such as cinnamic acid and its methyl ester are also reportedly found in the fruits and the leaves of the plant.

The fruits of the bay laurel also contain green colored semi-solid oil that melts at approximately 30°C. This green oil once extracted is found to consist of several percents in the essential oil – the main components are two forms of compounds called sesquiterpenoids, the compound costunol, and the compound dehydrocostuslacton. However, the green semi-solid oil is found to primarily consist of fatty oils, such as the triglycerides of lauric acid – also called dodecanoic acid, the compound myristic acid – also called tetradecanoic acid and some amount of the compound ellagic acid. Thus, it can be seen that the essential oil of the bay laurel is made up of many different compounds and different plant resins and other substances.

Sweet Pickles with Bay:

  • 25 small gherkin cucumbers
  • 1-quart boiling water
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 1 1/2 quarts white vinegar
  • 1-pint water
  • 1 1/2 tsp. allspice
  • 1 1/2 tsp. peppercorns
  • 1 1/2 tsp. whole cloves
  • 1 1/2 tsp. celery seeds
  • 1 1/2 tsp. mustard seeds
  • 1 stick cinnamon, broken
  • 2 bay leaves, crushed
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar

Wash cucumbers and drain. Place in a large crock. Combine boiling water and salt and pour over the cucumbers. Let stand overnight. Drain.
Combine the remaining ingredients in an enamel kettle. Heat to boiling. Add cucumbers to the kettle, and return the contents to a boil.
Pack the cucumbers at once into sterile glass jars, then fill the jars with pickling liquid and seal.
Let stand 4 weeks or longer before using.


  • What timing! In my brief article, I was just able to mention the difference between sweet bay and our native California bay. I would like to emphasize it more, but space is so limited in the gardening column. Although the native bay is somewhat useful for some things, and can even be used ‘similarly’ to sweet bay, it is NO substitute, and can really ruin a recipe with the stronger and much more pungent flavor. Like I say, it is useful for some things, and I happen to like it, but it is NOT a substitute for sweet bay! I get emphatic about it just because so many here believe that it works the same, and stores even sell it as sweet bay!

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