Leaves from the bay tree (Laurus nobilis) are commonly used to flavour stews, casseroles, and soups but did you know they have other uses apart from culinary? The dried leaves can be spread around in the pantry to deter weevils, mixed with other dried herbs and flowers to make potpourri, and hung about the home as a natural air freshener.
Medicinally, the leaves can be infused and taken to aid digestion and stimulate the appetite. To relieve aching limbs add a decoction of the leaves to bathwater and massage infused bay leaf oil in to rheumatic joints and around sprains. Other culinary uses include adding the leaves to marinades, flavouring rice by adding a leaf to the storage jar; and boiling them in milk to flavour rice puddings and custard.
Bay leaves have been popularly used since ancient times and I doubt there are few homes today that don’t have them in the kitchen. The tree is surrounded by folklore and legend; Greek and Roman myth tells of the nymph, Daphne, being changed into a laurel tree by her father, Peneus, the river god. This was done at her own request so she could avoid being attacked by Apollo, the Greek god of prophecy, healing, and poetry, who was smitten with her. This all happened because Eros (Cupid), annoyed by Apollo’s self-righteousness, shot arrows into him and Daphne. The arrows had opposite effects; Apollo’s arrow stimulated his love for Daphne and hers made her hate him!
When Apollo discovered Daphne’s transformation he was amazed by it so made the laurel or bay tree sacred to him and began to wear a crown made from the tree’s leaves. Soon after, triumphant soldiers began to wear the laurel wreath, which became associated with triumph, achievement, and fame.
To Romans the bay was symbolic of glory and wisdom and they believed that standing under the tree would protect individuals from lightning as well as the plague. The laurel was also used for protection against witches and the plague in the Middle Ages.
In Latin, Laurus means laurel, nobilis means renowned, and laureate means ‘crowned with laurels’. This is where the term poet laureate originates.
The bay tree or sweet bay, as it is also known, is the only member of the laurels that isn’t poisonous.