Laurel, Sweet Bay
( Originally Published 1933 )
The laurel is native to the Mediterranean region where it grows to a tree up to forty feet high. Its glossy, evergreen, scented foliage is famous as composing the wreaths of victory and the tree has played an important role in Greek and Roman mythology. No one could call the laurel a "herb," but the leaves are so constantly mentioned in recipes, and it is such a handsome plant, either growing in the ground or, where it is not hardy, in tubs, that we recommend every herb gardener to have at least two of them, for in a garden scheme pairs are so much more attractively disposed of than single specimens.
Stem. The stems are woody, sometimes reddish or olive green.
Leaf. The evergreen leaves are alternate, smooth, shiny, and dark green, of a stiff texture and three inches or more in length and one across at the widest parts. They terminate in points both at the base and tip, and are lighter and yellowish on the under side where they show a network of veins, the side veins branching out from the central one. The margins are slightly rippled, and there is a prominent midrib. When crushed they smell deliciously of lemon and resin.
Flower. The flowers are yellowish, inconspicuous, and are unisexual or dioecious (the male and female flowers being on separate plants). They measure one-eighth of an inch across and bloom in early spring in clusters of three or more to a stem, which rises directly from the woody main stem.
Fruit. The berries are dark purple or black. The wrinkled skin covers two seeds and they taste balsamic, bitter, and fatty.
Variety. There are several varieties of the laurel, differing in stature and the form of the leaves; one having curled and another variegated foliage; some of the varieties are named according to the shapes of the leaves
such as var. angustifolia, var. latifolia, and var. salicifolia.
HISTORY AND LEGEND
The laurel was sacred to Apollo, who preferred it to all other trees, and his temple stood in a laurel grove. It was the augury of victory, and hence of good news.
De Gubernatis says the God of the Sun wears the laurel which is supposed to be luminous, and, like the God, to bestow light, fame, and glory, and that this light-giving quality is why it was used in connection with the oracles. The tripods of the Pythonesses were decorated with it, and they also ate the leaves to help them prophesy, and those who came to ask their advice were crowned with the leaves.
In Roman days the letter announcing a victory was fastened with laurel leaves, while victors in battle, and, in Greece, in athletic and poetic contests, were crowned with it. The statues of the Gods Apollo, Bacchus, Liberates, Salus, Esculapius, and Hercules were decorated with the branches of it. To-day in Italy, Sicily, and Corsica, the laurel plays a part in religious and other festivals. In Corsica the house is decorated with it at weddings, and near Bologna there is a custom which seems like a debased descendant of the oracles, consisting of burning the laurel leaves to predict the quality of the harvests. If they crackle it will be good, but if not it will be poor.
Ibn Baithar mentioned its medicinal uses and said if a single leaf is picked, not allowed to fall to the ground, and then laid behind the ear, it will prevent one's being affected by wine. There is a modern Andalusian song which prefers the laurel to all other trees, Ana above all other women, and the carnation to all other flowers:
Entre los arboles todos Se senorea el laurel Entre las mujeres Ana Entre flores el clavel.
Medicine. It is used for insect stings.
Perfume. An oil expressed from the fruit is called oil of bay and enters into toilet preparations.
Food. It is indispensable in a number of bouquets and is used for flavoring soups, certain sauces, and the preparations of pickled beef. There is always a bay leaf in the preparation of game, duck, chicken, and it flavors custards and milk puddings.
The laurel thrives in rich, peaty soil with plenty of moisture. It is much grown in European gardens for its fragrance and evergreen foliage, and is generally but not always clipped. It is grown in the South and in Mexico, but in the United States to-day it is scarce and exceedingly expensive, a clipped plant of any size bringing five hundred dollars in 1931.
It is propagated by cuttings of ripened wood three to four inches long, put in sharp sand under glass. As soon as they are ripened they are moved to small pots in fairly rich, sandy loam. According to Bailey they grow best in rich, sandy loam with perfect drainage. If grown in the North, in pots, they have to be wintered indoors where the temperature does not reach the freezing mark.