Many of us think of Bay as merely a culinary herb, often used in soups and Mediterranean cooking. However, it is a very useful medicinal herb with a fascinating history. First though, we must ensure that we are discussing the proper Bay. Laurus nobilis is the “Bay Leaf” used in cooking. This is the Bay Laurel. The Myrica family is also commonly referred to as Bay - these include Wax Myrtle, Bayberry and Bog Myrtle also have medicinal uses, but can be toxic if used improperly. The Bay Laurel is the almost mystical tree of ancient Greek mythology and Roman tradition, as well as, the Bay Leaf used culinarily.
The ancient Greek name for Bay Laurel is Daphne, named after a mythical nymph. According to Wiki:
In the myth of Apollo and Daphne, the god Apollo fell in love with Daphne, a priestess of Gaia (Mother Earth), and when he tried to seduce her she pled for help to Gaia, who transported her to Crete. In Daphne's place Gaia left a laurel tree, from which Apollo fashioned wreaths to console himself Other versions of the myth, including that of the Roman poet Ovid, state that Daphne was transformed directly into a laurel tree
Bay laurel was used to fashion the laurel wreath of ancient Greece, a symbol of highest status. A wreath of bay laurels was given as the prize at the Pythian Games because the games were in honor of Apollo, and the laurel was one of his symbols. According to the poet Lucian, the priestess of Apollo known as the Pythia reputedly chewed laurel leaves from a sacred tree growing inside the temple to induce the enthusiasmos (trance) from which she uttered the oracular prophecies for which she was famous Some accounts starting in the fourth century BC describe her as shaking a laurel branch while delivering her prophecies. Those who received promising omens from the Pythia were crowned with laurel wreaths as a symbol of Apollo's favor
The symbolism carried over to Roman culture, which held the laurel as a symbol of victory. It was also associated with immortality, with ritual purification, prosperity and health. It is also the source of the words baccalaureate and poet laureate, as well as the expressions "assume the laurel" and "resting on one's laurels".
Pliny the Elder stated that the Laurel was not permitted for "profane" uses – lighting it on fire at altars "for the propitiation of divinities" was strictly forbidden, because "...it is very evident that the laurel protests against such usage by crackling as it does in the fire, thus, in a manner, giving expression to its abhorrence of such treatment."
The medicinal use of Bay was written of by Dioscorides:
Some daphne [laurus] is found with a smaller leaf, some a broader. Both are warming and softening, as a result a decoction of them is good as a hip bath for disorders of the vulva and bladder. The green leaves are somewhat astringent. Pounded into small pieces and applied they are good for wasp and bee stings. Applied with barley flour and bread they are able to lessen any inflammation. Taken as a drink they make the stomach tender and provoke vomit, but the bay berries heat more than the leaves. They are good therefore taken in a linctus [syrup] (after they are pounded into small pieces) with honey or passum [raisin wine] for consumption [wasting disease], asthma and dripping mucus around the chest. They are also taken as a drink with wine against scorpion stings, and they remove vitiligines [form of leprosy]. The juice of the berries helps earache and hardness of hearing dropped into the ears with old wine and rosaceum . It is mixed with recipes for medicines to remove fatigue, with hot ointments, and with those which disperse. The bark of the root breaks stones [kidney, urinary], is an abortifacient, and is good for liver disorders — half a teaspoon taken as a drink with fragrant wine. It is also called danaben, stephanos (as we should say a crown), daphnos, mythracice, mithrios, or hypoglossion.
Gerard gave much history and praise of Bay:
A. The berries and leaves of the Bay tree, saith Galen, are hot and very dry, and yet the berries more than the leaves.
B. The bark is not biting and hot, but more bitter, and it hath also a certain astrictive or binding quality.
C. Bay berries with honey or cute, are good in a licking medicine, saith Dioscorides, against the pthisic or consumption of the lungs, difficulty of breathing, and all kind of fluxes or rheums about the chest.
D. Bay berries taken in wine, are good against the bitings and stingings of any venomous beast, and against all venom and poison: they cleanse away the morphew: the juice pressed out hereof is a remedy for pain of the ears, and deafness, if it be dropped in with old wine and oil of roses: this is also mixed with ointments that are good against wearisomness, and that heat and discuss or waste away humours.
E. Bay berries are put into mithridate, treacle, and such-like medicines that are made to refresh such people as are grown sluggish and dull by means of taking opiate medicines, or such as have any venomous or poisoned quality in them.
F. They are good also against cramps and drawing together of sinews.
G. We in our time do not use the berries for the infirmities of the lungs, or chest, but minister them against the diseases of the stomach, liver, spleen, and bladder: they warm a cold stomach, cause concoction of raw humours, stir up a decayed appetite, take away the loathing of meat, open the stopping of the liver and spleen, provoke urine, bring down the menses, and drive forth the secondine.
H. The oil pressed out of these, or drawn forth by decoction, doth in short time take away scabs and such like filth of the skin.
I. It cureth them that are beaten black and blue, and that be bruised by squats and falls, it removeth black and blue spots and congealed blood, and digesteth and wasteth away the humours gathered about the grieved part.
J. Dioscorides saith, that the leaves are good for the diseases of the mother and bladder, if a bath be made thereof to bathe and sit in: that the green leaves do gently bind, that being applied, they are good against the stingings of wasps and bees; that with barley meal parched and bread, they assuage all kind of inflammations, and that being taken in drink they mitigate the pain of the stomach, but procure vomit.
L. The berries of the Bay tree stamped with a little Scammony and Saffron, and laboured in a mortar with vinegar and oil of roses to the form of a liniment, and applied to the temples and forepart of the head, do greatly cease the pain of the migraine.
M. It is reported that common drunkards were accustomed to eat in the morning fasting two leaves thereof against drunkenness.
N. The later physicians do oftentimes use to boil the leaves of Laurel with divers meats, especially fishes, and by so doing there happeneth no desire of vomiting: but the meat seasoned herewith becometh more savoury and better for the stomach.
O. The bark of the root of the Bay tree, as Galen writeth, drunken in wine provoketh urine, breaks the stone, and driveth forth gravel: it openeth the stoppings of the liver, the spleen, and all other stoppings of the inward, parts: which thing also Dioscorides affirmeth, who likewise addeth that it killeth the child in the mother's womb.
N. It helpeth the dropsy and the jaundice, and procureth unto women their desired sickness.
Culpepper was also fond of Bay, stating:
This is so well known, that it needs no description; I shall therefore only write the virtues thereof, which are many. I shall but only add a word or two to what my friend has written, viz. That it is a tree of the Sun, and under the celestial sign Leo, and resisteth witchcraft very potently, as also all the evils old Saturn can do to the body of man, and they are not a few, for it is the speech of one, and I am mistaken if it were not Mizaldus, that neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightning, will hurt a man in the place where a bay-tree is. Galen saith, that the leaves or bark do dry and heal very much, and the berries more than the leaves. The bark of the root is less sharp and hot, but more bitter, and hath some astriction withal, whereby it is effectual to break the stone, and good to open obstructions of the liver, spleen, and other inward parts, which bring the dropsy, jaundice, &c. The berries are very effectual against the poison of venomous creatures, and the stings of wasps and bees, as also against the pestilence, or other infectious diseases, and therefore is put into sundry treacles for that purpose; they likewise procure women's courses: and seven of them given to a woman in sore travail of child-birth do cause a speedy delivery, and expel the after-birth, and therefore not to be taken but by such as have gone out their time, lest they procure abortion, or cause labour too soon; they wonderfully help all cold and rheumatic distillations from the brain to the eyes, lungs, or other parts; and being made into an electuary with honey, do help the consumption, old coughs, shortness of breath, and thin rheums; as also the megrim; they mightily expel wind, and provoke urine, help the mother, and kill the worms; the leaves also work the like effects. A bath of the decoction of the leaves and berries, is singularly good for women to sit in, that are troubled with the mother, or the diseases thereof, or the stoppings of their courses, or for the diseases of the bladder, pains in the bowels by wind, and stopping of urine. A decoction likewise of equal parts of bay-berries, cummin-seed, hyssop, origanum, and euphobium, with some honey, and the head bathed therewith, doth wonderfully help distillation and rheums, and settleth the palate of the mouth into its place. The oil made of the berries is very comfortable in all cold griefs of the joints, nerves, arteries, stomach, belly, or womb; and helpeth palsies, convulsions, cramps, aches, trembling and numbness in any part, also weariness, and pains that come by sore travelling: all grief and pains likewise proceeding from wind, either in the head, stomach, back, belly, or womb, by anointing the parts affected therewith; and pains in the ears are also cured by dropping in some of the oil, or by receiving into the ears the warm fume of the decoction of the berries through a funnel. The oil takes away the marks of the skin and flesh by bruises, falls, &c. and dissolveth the congealed blood in them; it helpeth also the itch, scabs, and wheals, in the skin.
Plants for A Future catches us up to modern times in terms of how Bay may be used medicinally:
The bay tree has a long history of folk use in the treatment of many ailments, particularly as an aid to digestion and in the treatment of bronchitis and influenza. It has also been used to treat various types of cancer. The fruits and leaves are not usually administered internally, other than as a stimulant in veterinary practice, but were formerly employed in the treatment of hysteria, amenorrhoea, flatulent colic etc. Another report says that the leaves are used mainly to treat upper respiratory tract disorders and to ease arthritic aches and pains. It is settling to the stomach and has a tonic effect, stimulating the appetite and the secretion of digestive juices. The leaves are antiseptic, aromatic, astringent, carminative, diaphoretic, digestive, diuretic, emetic in large doses, emmenagogue, narcotic, parasiticide, stimulant and stomachic. The fruit is antiseptic, aromatic, digestive, narcotic and stimulant. An infusion has been used to improve the appetite and as an emmenagogue. The fruit has also been used in making carminative medicines and was used in the past to promote abortion. A fixed oil from the fruit is used externally to treat sprains, bruises etc, and is sometimes used as ear drops to relieve pain. The essential oil from the leaves has narcotic, antibacterial and fungicidal properties.
There are two main varieties of culinary bay leaves: Turkish (or Mediterranean) bay leaves and California bay leaves. The Turkish variety is the most common, with a more subtle flavor compared to California bay leaves, which have more potency and a slightly mint taste.
What Do They Taste Like?
Since bay leaves aren't eaten, the flavor is more about what they bring to a recipe—and that is up for much debate. Many cooks believe that bay leaves don't contribute any taste at all while others find the herb adds a subtle depth of flavor. So, while bay leaves do not add overwhelming and distinct flavors to any dish, they can be thought of as a "supporting actor," in that they help coax out other flavors and spices in whatever dish you are making.
One may wonder how such a widely used and highly valued medicinal herb fell out of modern use. I can only speculate that it had to do with the rise of “modern medicine” in Europe and its antagonism toward herbalism and “folk medicine”. Perhaps the culinary use of Bay continued, while its medicinal use was gradually forgotten. Immigrants to North America found the Myricas and a great many uses for them, both as herbs and in commerce. Several early American recipes I have read seem to indicate that the leaves of myrica were used as a substitute for Bay Laurel… perhaps their difference was not even recognized. Labrador Tea, a member of the rhododendron family was also sometimes referred to as Bay. It was likely very confusing to new immigrants. While all of these plants have their uses, it is important that we not forget that the humble Bay Leaf was once anything but humble; it was not only an essential culinary herb, but a valued medicinal herb and a symbol of nobility, and the highest achievements. It is also mighty good in soups… but, be sure to pluck the leaves out before serving!
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