The ancient Greeks were stone mad for them, the Romans wore them on their heads, Emperor Tiberius wore a hat made from them (to protect him from lightening), poets stuck them under their pillows for inspiration and witches and wizards lauded them for their narcotic effect which spelled a special kind of magic! Looking through the historical data, this ordinary herb extraordinarily sorted the ills and woes of populations all over the World! Bay Leaf has had many claims attributed to it down through the ages – some of which are valid, others not so much – but all make for some welcome distraction from Covid, Brexit and the “new abnormal”!
The woody shrub, Laurus Nobilis, bay laurel tree or bay leaf tree, originated in the Mediterranean region but soon was cultivated in South Asia, South America, Australia and Europe. It thrives in hot, sunny climates with moisture from the sea but is often seen in Irish gardens too. It is most famed for its flavour, medicinal and ceremonial use as well as hair lotions and manly potions. The leaves, bark and essential oils extracted from the leaves give us the familiar bay leaf aroma and it is these parts of the bay tree that have undergone the most scrutiny in scientific terms although the tree also bears flowers and fruits -these don’t feature quite as much.
We are familiar seeing a wreath of bay leaves (laurels) donned by the victorious in many modern sports harping back to a time when wearing a laurel wreath was prestigious and well-respected. The term “laureate” is attributed to those who have achieved high esteem or award for their work – Nobel prize winners and poet laureates are good examples of how the simple bay leaf has in itself earned high regard throughout the ages right up to today. In traditional (folk) medicine it has been widely used to treat migraines, earache, rheumatism, sprains, earaches, and to enhance perspiration (not quite sure what this really means!). It also was used for digestive issues, stomach ache, colic, vomiting, diarrhoea and indigestion. There are also reports that bay leaf tea relieved coughs, colds, influenza, bronchitis and upper respiratory infections. Poultices of bay applied to the skin were used to treat pain and neuralgia. Resting on one’s “laurels” probably was a well spent past-time by all accounts.
Today, many of the old remedies, have been examined for efficacy, safety and toxicology among other parameters that deem them a “medicine” by modern standards. Remarkably, bay leaf has a chemistry profile that would knock the socks off some of our most advanced drugs. Bay leaf has many biologic activities such as wound healing activity, antioxidant activity, antibacterial activity, antiviral activity, immunostimulant activity, anticholinergic activity (cholesterol-lowering), antifungal activity, insect repellent activity, anticonvulsant activity, antimutagenic activity, and analgesic and anti-inflammatory activity. Now, before you go out and buy a tonne of bay leaves, much more work has to be done by our scientists but so far, there is plenty good reason to include bay leaves in your kitchen herb and spice collection.
Have you ever noticed that once we are told that something is good for us, we automatically assume that more is better? Not this time! The best way to enjoy bay leaves is a few, regularly rather than a whole bunch of them just once. Bay leaves are indigestible and have a tough fibrous stem and sharp, pointy leaves – they should never be consumed whole. Injury to the mouth, oesophagus and intestinal linings have been known to happen. However, do not let that put you off adding whole bay leaves to slow-cooking dishes and remove before serving. The flavour imparted by the leaves in cooking consists of the beneficial oils and nutrients. Similarly, you can make tea from whole leaves by simmering 4 or 5 leaves per cup of water for 10 minutes, leave to rest, covered with a lid for a little while – strain the liquid before drinking. You could also add whole cloves and cinnamon stick to the simmering tea for even more potency especially now as we enter the season of coughs, colds and flu. Sweeten with honey and serve with plenty slices of lemon or oranges for some Vitamin C!
Some of the more “out there” uses for bay leaves came from Witchipedia, a fabulous online resource for all things magic! As the darker evenings draw near and social distancing keeps us afar, conjuring up some magic at home might become the new going out! One way of manifesting some good fortune is to write your wish on a bay leaf and burn it under the full moon. Bay leaf is handy too if you want to hold on to your lover – simply go to a bay tree and pick a leaf together, tear it in half and each keep one half. Guaranteed that you will see your lover again, and neither of you will be tempted by infidelity.
Ironically, as I write this piece, I just heard the pubs will re-open again on the 21st September – enough time to stock up on the bay leaves, for whatever reason suits you best!
All the best,
Ré Nua Natural Health Blog
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