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Bay Laurel - Uses and Benefits. Infographic: herbs-info.com. Photo credits: See foot of article
Background and History
Considered one of the most popular and commonly used culinary herbs, bay leaf is an integral part of a variety of different cuisines, and among the few types of herbs that is technically considered (and employed primarily as) a spice in its own right. Despite the general idea that bay leaves only spring from one distinct kind of plant, bay leaves are actually obtained from an assortment of inter-related (and some non-related) plant species that possess some aromatic essence, to one extent or the other. Among the most common sources for bay leaves are plants from the laurel (Lauraceae) family and the myrtle family (Myrtaceae). Technically speaking, there is no such thing as "true" bay leaf, but there are distinct species of plants which produce some kind of leaf that serves such a function, given that each distinct plant varietal provides a leaf of slight similarities but even greater differential nuances from one to the other.  Among the most popular of these "bay leaf" plants is the Laurus nobilis tree, which provides one of the most commonly employed types of bay leaf - the bay laurel.
Generally assumed a native of the Mediterranean area, the bay laurel is a relatively ancient plant whose origins date back to as far as the middle of the Pliocene era. In spite of this regional attribution, the bay laurel thrives in a much larger scope, generally encompassing a large area of Asia, Eastern Europe, selected areas of Africa, and a significant area of the Levant and its subsequent territories usually alongside other unrelated (or some superficially related) species used in the same light as bay laurel. It is unique among many plants due to its penchant for pervasive and often all-encompassing growth. Despite being slow-growing, it thrives in a myriad of conditions regardless of its hospitability. Being an evergreen tree, it is able to withstand differences in temperature, although it flourishes best in the tropics and semi-tropics, with species growing in semi-arid or semi-temperate climates being less verdant, but (it is claimed) more "flavourful". The bay laurel, just like the majority of laurel species and subspecies, have a tendency to grow in dense forests of its own kind (aptly referred to as "laurel forests"), although the occurrence of such forests are now relatively rare and are limited only to specific areas (i. e. Morocco, Syria, and some parts of Spain and Portugal. Initially, laurel forests were very commonplace during the prehistoric period, although subsequent climate change and the shift in soil alkalinity has made the growth of such forests nearly impossible naturally, and where possible, it is usually hampered by human intervention. 
The laurel is a moderately-sized evergreen bush, although in highly optimal conditions it can thrive and grow to about the size of a small to medium-sized tree to as tall as a full-fledged tree, often reaching a maximum height of some sixty feet tall. It is characterised by emerald-hued, extremely glossy leaves and pale-yellow inflorescence that grow in pairs in between the glossy leaves. The leaves are unisexual, thus eliminating the necessity for cross-pollination between species and allowing even a singular specimen (given the ideal conditions) to thrive on its own without the necessity for external pollinators. The bay laurel also displays fruits that grow beneath the leaf-stems during season. These fruits, which are minutely sized black or dark purple-hued berries were also employed for culinary and medicinal purposes during ancient times, although never in its fresh form. The bay laurel is chiefly cultivated for its culinary and medicinal uses, although some varietals of the family Lauraceae and other near relatives are likewise grown as ornamental plants or landscaping plants.
Unlike other relatively ancient herbs whose origins began purely as medicinal and later veered towards the culinary, the bay laurel was initially chiefly used for culinary purposes and only later veered towards the medicinal, although this was chiefly due to the fact that the majority of ancient medicinal practices were reflective of its culinary mores. Nowadays, the bay laurel remains a primary culinary ingredient, although the use of its other constituent plant parts has become relatively obsolete except in certain traditional settings or in accordance with a specific country's culinary practice. Unlike other herbs or spices that are usually integrated into the foodstuff, the use of bay laurel is unique in that it normally remains as a preparatory herb or as a flavouring agent, but never truly incorporated into the prepared dish itself but rather taken out prior serving, or during the consumption of the meal itself. In most settings, bay laurel is rarely - if ever - ingested. It is commonly assumed that ingesting bay laurel is poisonous, but this is technically untrue. One of the primary reasons why bay laurel is rarely ingested is due to its extremely tough and oftentimes sharp nature. When employed fresh (a rare practice, as the still-green leaves promote only a mellow flavour) the leaves are tough, but easily "cooked" into a state of manageable softness. However, because bay laurel leaves are usually incorporated into preparations in its dry form, the leaves then become very tough and difficult to pulverize or tear into tiny pieces. Because it is initially a glossy leaf, it's tough, plastic-like nature is retained after drying, making it nearly impossible to chew properly into tiny pieces, and, if ever accomplished, the leaves are usually left with sharp edges which can pose a risk for choking or internal injuries. This does not necessitate that bay laurel is utterly inedible however, since finely powdered bay laurel is perfectly safe for consumption (albeit very rarely employed). Another reason for the myth of its "toxicity" is due to the fact that most laurels (or leaves that are akin to it) which are or were harvested in ancient times were of the poisonous variety despite its resemblance to bay laurel in terms of aroma and flavour. Related species such as the cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) and the mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) are among the many laurel varietals whose leaves are known to be toxic to both humans and livestock, and that are commonly mistaken for bay laurel or its non-poisonous relatives due to its being in the same genus and sharing many of the former's characteristics. 
Nowadays, the risk of being accidentally poisoned by a "bad batch" of faux-laurel leaves is rare, except in cases where the spices in question are wildcrafted by an inexpert herbalist. Storebought bay laurel in whatever form is perfectly safe for either culinary or medicinal usage. Bay laurel is typically sold in its dried form, with the leaves being a dark-brown or nut-brown hue, although fresh laurel leaves (technically "semi-dried" leaves) are of a muted-green or pale jadegreen hue. Powdered bay laurel usually comes from fully dried whole leaves, although green variants are often sold in specialty stores. Due to its dry nature, bay leaves will typically last indefinitely, if it is stored in an air-tight container and kept away from moisture or direct sunlight to avoid the growth of moulds, and to preserve its essential oils. However, even if such conditions are met, its flavour and aroma will inevitably degrade overtime, albeit at a slower rate. Improperly kept (i. e. sans airtight container), the leaves will last for up to a year, although they could last longer under proper storage. It is due to its long shelf-life that it became a prime spice during ancient times.
Common / Popular Uses
Unrelated to its medicinal or culinary purpose, bay laurel is commonly grown as a landscaping plant or a hedge tree. Due to its hardiness and its tendency to pool together into "forests" under ideal conditions, it is a prime choice for sprawling landscapes or for natural barriers, although growing and maintaining them to an aesthetic or semi-aesthetic appearance can be time-consuming and expensive.
The most common use of bay laurel is as an ingredient in cuisine, although, as formerly stated, it is rarely truly incorporated into the dish itself, but merely integrated during the preparation process (i. e. marinating / cooking) and removed afterwards. Because of its tough, flavourful, and highly aromatic nature, bay laurel is often a prime ingredient in many soup-based dishes, and plays an integral role in many cross-cultural stewed foodstuffs. Because its aroma and flavour-profile rarely digresses from the warm, earthy, and mutedly sweet, it is a prime choice for flavouring meat-based dishes, especially those which are exposed to slow cooking times, with the ideal that the longer it cooks, the more intensely the flavour will seep into the meat. Within the Western context, bay laurel is commonly employed as a major ingredient in Mediterranean, Occidental, and some schools of Continental cuisine. It is commonly found as a major flavouring ingredient in Italian and Spanish dishes as well as subsequent derivatives of such types of cuisine. In Italy, it is commonly used to flavour pasta-sauces and meat-based stews, or otherwise incorporated into marinades. In Spanish and Spanish-inspired cuisine, bay laurel is typically incorporated into meat-based dishes, and, in rare occasions, into any spicy dish regardless of the primary ingredient. It is a common feature in steaks, meat stews, and Spanishstyle sardines. This practice is followed closely by Filipino cuisine, which is heavily influenced by Spanish culinary styles, and in which it plays a very important role in the flavouring of adobo - a spicy-sweet or spicy-salty stew-steak hybrid chicken dish common and wellloved throughout the Philippines. Bay laurel is also a common ingredient in any all forms of Filipino meat-marinades, as is common in most Spanish dishes. 
Within the context of French cuisine, bay laurel is commonly employed as an ingredient in the creation of bouquet garnis, alongside herbs such as basil, fennel, and thyme and plays a more complimentary role in the flavouring of stocks for soup when compared to Mediterranean and Eurasian usage. In Indian cuisine, it plays a nearly universal role in any type of foodstuff, whether meat-based or otherwise (with the exception of desserts), although its usage varies depending upon the regional preference for the spice. Chinese cuisine employs bay laurel as a flavouring agent in meat-based dishes, especially in Szechuan and Macau cuisine. Unlike commonplace practice (i. e. the use of whole leaves), Chinese cuisine usually employ finely powdered bay laurel, especially in the creation of heavy sauces, or when integrated into stir-fries, although the use of whole leaves is also commonplace, albeit alongside its dried berries (a practice which is no longer commonplace within the majority of Western cuisine). The employment of bay leaves in Japanese and Korean cuisine seems to be only very rare, although Thai and Vietnamese cuisine sometimes employs its integration, albeit only in very few dishes. Middle Eastern and Central Asian cuisine employs bay leaves as an additive and flavouring for both its main and complimentary meals, insomuch as to even feature some desserts and even beverages (both alcoholic and non-alcholic) that have been flavoured with bay laurel. 
Bay laurel's most telling use is in the medicinal field, of which it has been a "primary contributor" since ancient times, with diverse cultures ranging from the Asiatic to the far Eastern European having employed it for diverse medicinal purposes. Its earliest use as a medicine can perhaps be attributed to the Ancient Greeks or the Ancient Egyptians, both of which employed decoctions of the leaves as natural astringents, antiseptics, analgesics, and antipyretics depending upon the strength of the decoction and the prescribed dosage. Generally, mild to moderate brews are drunk as a digestif, and is commonly prescribed for remedying flatulence, stomachaches, bloating, mild intestinal ulcers, and indigestion. Moderately strong brews are drunk for remedying fevers or alleviating the symptoms of coughs and flu, while very strong brews were given as emmenagogues or abortifacients - a practice common in Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East prior to, and even after the introduction of Christianity and Islam, respectively.  A brew of any potency has also been employed as an antiseptic, and played an integral role in the early methods of medicinal treatment, especially during the Mediaeval period, where decocted bay laurel leaves (usually combined with other antiseptic herbs or spices) were employed as washes for wounds or as a base 'dip' for medicated bandages to prevent wound infection. 
In Ayurvedic medicine, bay laurel has been credited antivenin-like effects, and was typically drunk as an antidote to mild and moderately severe poisoning. It was likewise a remedy for any internal complaint, as well as a mild analgesic. Traditional Chinese Medicine prescribed bay laurel as warming and tonifying drink taken during the cold season, with the thought of its staving off or remedying bronchitis and flu (which were common diseases during wintertime). It was also prescribed as a remedy for restlessness and insomnia - a practice which it shared with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean alternative medicine. Very strong decoctions of the plant have been used in various settings as an emetic, diuretic, and diaphoretic, usually when decocted with its dried berries. In Filipino and Malay shamanic medicine, powdered bay laurel powder was sprinkled on open wounds to facilitate healing. The berries were also prescribed as a contraceptive, or otherwise given in whole or decocted form at the onset of delivery to facilitate faster and less painful delivery - a practice which is also shared by diverse cultures from Arabia to the primitive New World. 
In its most common employment decoctions of bay laurel are typically drunk as a mild sedative, or otherwise imbibed to promote digestion and improve the appetite. In Barbados, a preparation which consists of a combination of roasted and powdered cacao beans and bay laurel leaves is usually drunk as a cure-all, although it possesses mildly hallucinogenic and strongly enervating aftereffects which are in stark contrast to the otherwise sedative effect of bay laurel.  It is a generally accepted anti-rheumatic, anti-arthritic analgesic, with poultices of fresh leaves having been employed by several cultures as a means to relieve the pain of swollen joints, sore muscles, and mending fractures. Bay laurel decoctions have also been employed as a stimulatory hair wash that is said to improve hair texture and eliminate lice while imparting the hair with a unique perfume.
By around the late 1600s up until the height of the Industrial Revolution, bay leaves became a universal antiseptic and to this day remains an important fixture in the straight-razor shaving culture. Powdered bay leaves were sprinkled unto open wounds to help hasten healing and prevent infection (this being an early precursor to shaving lotions), while alcoholic tinctures in rum were a favourite among males as an aftershave (called "bay rum", said to have been invented, and well-loved by privateers) - a practice which remained until the early 1940s, with a small but loyal following persisting to this day. Similar antiseptics containing bay laurel have been made, usually outside of the context of its being a facial aftershave in lieu of its being made into a facial astringent, usually by doing away with the alcohol and replacing the primary aquaeous substance with vinegar (typically apple cider).
The essential oil of bay laurel has been employed in much the same light as the whole leaf - as a universal astringent. When mixed with a base-oil and applied topically, it is said to help eliminate bodily odours, cure fungal infections, and even repel insects. Medicated oils made from the maceration of bay laurel leaves, or otherwise derived from a solution of its essential oil along with a base oil (either on its own, or in combination with other known analgesic essences) is a well-loved remedy for general aches and pains. The essential oil of bay laurel also plays a small, but important role in the world of perfumery and aromatherapy.
Magickal / Esoteric Uses
Laurel has a long-standing history of use in the occultic and esoteric circles, dating back to its earliest discovery. It was believed that laurel had preternatural origins, in that it was initially a nymph - the mythological Daphne - who, fleeing from the amours of the god Apollo, was turned by Gaea (or in more popular accounts, by her father Peneus) into the laurel tree. Because of its associations with the Greek god, laurel has had a long-standing reputation of being a tree that imparted wisdom and imbued a spirit of nobility. It was from this belief that the crown of laurels (Latin: corona) had sprung. It was generally awarded to individuals of reputable skills, and later flaunted (and perhaps even abused) as a symbol of valour, greatness, or general prowess at any given field - a practice which persists, albeit only symbolically - to this very day. Laurel crowns were employed as an early mark of recognition during the original Olympic Games. Early precursors to the corona civica (civic crown), corona aurea (golden crown), and corona vallaris (crown of valour) of Republican and, later, Imperial Rome were based on the original laurel wreath.
The bay laurel is considered sacred to many Graeco-Roman deities (i. e. Apollo, Hermes, Ceres), as well as a number of Celtic) ones (i. e. Cerridwen, Morrigan), and was employed as an incense or offertory herb in their specific rituals. It is typically burnt as a smudge, or otherwise used to asperge an area. When burnt as an incense, it is said to cleanse an area of negativity, as well as protect it from malignant forces. Exposure to the fumes of bay laurel is said to improve or enhance one's innate psychic abilities. Within the shamanic and early chthonic religions, bay laurel was employed as a hallucinogen, typically by inhaling the fumes that exuded from throwing fresh or dried leaves into a cauldron of boiling water or a pit of smouldering coals. The practice was commonplace in the Temple of the Oracle at Delphi, and was one of the Oracle's primary hallucinogenic herbs. Furthermore, bay leaves were often worn upon a shaman's (or more accurately, a healer's) person to increase the potency of their healing spells and prayers, as well as to protect them from possible backlashes that may arise if the disease in question involved the cooperation or will of a malignant spiritual entity. Burnt chiefly as incense or as a smudge, it is among the most potent of banishing herbs. Combined with sandalwood, it is said to be a powerful curse-breaker. Far more potent combinations employed basil, thyme, bay, sandalwood, and frankincense as a de-hexing incense. 
Laurel may be employed in the creation of medicine pouches, juju bags, and grisgris for practitioners of voodoo, hoodoo, and First Peoples magick. It is said to confer unto the bearer protection from all harm, as well as increased vigour and vitality. Sachets of bay, combined with St John's Wort or lavender is said to promote sleep and help bring about visions or prophetic dreams. Hoodoo practitioners employ bay as a means to banish negative emotions as well as to bar unwanted individuals from the caster's life, simply by sweeping 'away' their footsteps and smudging its wake with bay afterwards. In hedge witchcraft and islander magick, bay leaves are employed for prophesying and fixing. It is said that writing a wish upon a bay leaf and burning it afterwards is said to forward your wish to the Divine for immediate fulfillment, while picking a fresh leaf of bay from a laurel tree along with one's life partner, with each keeping half of the leaf would ensure a fruitful and faithful union. 
While the use of bay laurel is safe in moderate doses, its overuse, or the use of extremely potent preparations containing the spice may result in nausea, severe stomachaches, hallucinations, vomiting, and, in the case of pregnant women - accidental (or, in some cases mediated) abortion. Pregnant women or women who wish to conceive are therefore advised to limit their intake of remedies or foodstuffs that contain copious or otherwise concentrated amounts of bay laurel. The essential oil of bay laurel may also cause mild allergic reactions for individuals with sensitive skin, so a careful patch test is necessary prior to using tinctures, ointments, or liniments containing bay laurel, or its essential oil. Furthermore, the consumption of whole bay laurel leaves must never be attempted under any circumstances to avoid accidental choking or internal injuries to the oesophagus or digestive tract caused by the sharp edges of the torn leaf. Employing or purchasing wildcrafted bay laurel for culinary or medicinal use is also ill-advised, as it may not be true bay laurel, but a possible poisonous relative. Also, despite its employment for the flavouring of some types of alcoholic beverages, any attempt at consuming "home-made" bay flavoured alcoholic beverages is discouraged due to the potential side-effects that may result from an overdose of its extracted essences from casual drinking. Flavoured beverages usually have very little bay laurel in it to be of significant danger to one's person or to be detrimental to one's health, but the exact constituent measurement cannot always be followed by newbie brewers so as to assure the utmost in safety.
Bay Laurel, Other Names - Past and Present
Greek: dhafni (lit. "Daphne, i. e. the nymph)
Thai: bai kra wan
Turkish: defne / dafhani
French: feuille de laurier / laurier franc
Italian: lauro / foglia di alloro
Spanish: hoja de laurel / laurel
Filipino: dahong laurel (lit. "leaf of laurel") / laurel (adopted from Spanish) / dahon paminta (lit. "spice leaf")
English: Apollo"s laurel / bay laurel / Indian bay leaf / sweet bay leaf / sweet bay laurel / royal laurel
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Laurus nobilis
Bay laurel Illustration - Köhlers Medizinal-Pflanzen (1887) (PD)
Infographic Image Sources:
Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt, Scientific Studies report by Dan Ablir. © herbs-info.com 2013
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