Herbs in History: Laurel


Laurus nobilis L.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | November 2023

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Laurus nobilis L.

Illustration 1: Laurus nobilis L.

Noble laurel tree at the Via dei Fori Imperiali in Rome, under the shade of pine trees

Illustration 2: Noble laurel tree at the Via dei Fori Imperiali in Rome, under the shade of pine trees

Apollo and deep memory

Immortalized by Linnaeus as a noble tree, laurel (Laurus nobilis L.) has indeed a pedigree that very few plants can claim, from Apollo to the Roman emperors. It has a noble stature, growing up to 12 m (39 ft) with a foliage up to 10 m wide (32 ft) in the Mediterranean campaign (Illustration 1) and deservedly punctuates the famous via dei Fori Imperiali (the Imperial Fora) in Rome under the canopy of the higher pines (Illustration 2).
Its English names hint at a special status: besides bay tree and sweet bay referring to its fruit, it is known as Grecian laurel, Roman laurel or, probably best, true laurel and noble laurel.
Native to southern Europe, it still is typically Circum-Mediterranean, with, however, an introduction at the edge of its native area of distribution (Spain and Great Britain to the West, and an area from Crimea to the Caspian Sea to the East) and in countries in eastern Asia (Vietnam and North and South Korea) (Illustration 3).
Its ancient Greek and Latin names attest to a remote Mediterranean past: dafnê in Greek and laurus in Latin. Both terms have no identified etymology, indeed, and are of unknown origin. As often with such names without traceable genesis, they are considered to reflect the most ancient layers of Mediterranean history, going as far back as the root of language.

Current distribution of Laurus nobilis L. in the world according to Plants of the World Online

Illustration 3: Current distribution of Laurus nobilis L. in the world according to Plants of the World Online (accessed October 2023)

A unique tree?

An evergreen tree in flower from April to May, noble laurel grows in light, medium and heavy soil, even in moderately fertile soils, in all cases preferably well-drained or dry. Although it can succeed in light shade, it definitely prefers the full sun. If noble laurel can resist cold, it defoliates in extreme negative temperatures, but recovers its foliage in the next spring or, at the later, in the summer. It does not like violent maritime or cold and dry wind, even though it can endure strong wind. And it resists extremely well to pests and diseases, also being immune to honey fungus. Interestingly, in Mediterranean countries dried figs are stored and packed with dry leaves of laurel, as they are insect repellent.
Noble laurel appears as early as the most ancient botanical treatise of the ancient Mediterranean tradition, the Historia Plantarum (Inquiry into Plants) by Theophrastus (ca. 371-287 BCE), a pupil of Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and his successor at the direction of the Lyceum School of Science of Philosophy in Athens. Theophrastus characterizes it as an evergreen tree (1.9.3) that does not thrive in cold regions (4.5.4) and grows an aromatic fruit (1.12.1). Later, Dioscorides (1st cent. CE) in De materia medica (Book I, chapter 78) does not describe it, possibly because it was known as a typical tree of the Mediterranean environment. Nevertheless, before discussing the therapeutic properties of its parts (leaves, berries, and peel of the root) he refers to a large-leaved species and a broader one without any further taxonomical characteristics. This difference in the leaf comes again in the description of the preparation of an oil of noble laurel bay (I.40), where Dioscorides specifies that the best oil is made from the berries of the mountain, large-leaved noble laurel.
Dioscorides’ contemporary, the Roman Pliny (23/24-79 CE), the author of the vast encyclopedia of natural sciences (Naturalis Historia, Natural History) who died in the eruption of the Vesuvius, presents the same observation as Dioscorides about the large-leaved noble laurel being the best one for the preparation of oil, specifying that this is the wild species of the tree (Book 15, chapter 26). Further on, he fully discusses the tree and relates the gradual identification of different species in a long chapter that is a mere history of botanical taxonomy in ancient Rome, with the contradictions that arose between authors. In the text that follows, we have added some historical data for understanding purposes (15.127):

Cato (the so-called Elder, 234-149 BCE) recorded two species of laurel, the Delphic and the Cyprian.
Pompeius Lenaeus (1st cent. BCE) added one that he called mustax, because it was placed underneath mustacean cakes (= baked cakes under which laurel leaves are put as insects’ repellent). He said that this has a very large, pendulous leaf of a whitish color, and that the Delphic laurel has a uniform greener color and very large berries of a reddish green; and that this laurel is used to make wreaths for the winners at Delphi, as it is for generals going in triumph in Rome. He states that the Cyprus laurel is crinkly, with a short black leaf that curves up along the edges.
Varieties have been added since his time: one of them is the tine tree, which some take to be the wild laurel; but there are people who think that it is a separate kind of tree. Indeed, there is a difference of color, the berry being bright blue.
Another addition is the royal laurel, which has begun to be called the Augusta Laurel (by reference to the Roman Emperor August [63 BCE-19 CE]), a very large tree with a very large leaf and berries without any rough taste. Some say that the royal laurel and the Augusta are not the same and make out the Royal to be a special kind, with longer and broader leaves.
The same people place in another class, under the name of bacalia, the Laurel that is the commonest of all and bears the largest number of berries. But much to my surprise they give the name of triumphal laurel to one species that has no berries, and say that this is the one used by persons celebrating a triumph …

In ornamental gardening there is also the Thasos lLaurel (from the northern Aegean Island Thasos), which has a tiny leafy fringe as it were growing out of the middle of the leaf, and the gelded laurel, without this fringe, which is remarkably able to stand lack of sun, and which consequently fills the ground with its shoots in however shady a place.


Noble laurel in the 1554 edition of Mattioli’s commentary on Dioscorides, De materia medica

Illustration 4: Noble laurel in the 1554 edition of Mattioli’s commentary on Dioscorides, De materia medica, p. 101

Noble laurel in the 1565 edition of Mattioli’s commentary on Dioscorides, De materia medica

Illustration 5: Noble laurel in the 1565 edition of Mattioli’s commentary on Dioscorides, De materia medica, p. 131

This apparent contradiction with earlier literature probably refers to individuals or populations with a specific geographical distribution, rather than to true species. Interestingly, current taxonomy includes only one species (Laurus nobilis L.), even though several species have been proposed in the post-Linnean era, which are now considered to refer to heterotypical synonyms. These supposed species refer in almost all cases to the shape of the leaf, exactly as already did Dioscorides, Pliny and the authors referred to by Pliny. Among these post-Linnean species we find such varieties as angustifolia Nees (with narrow leaves), lanceolata Meisn. (with lanceolate leaves), latifolia Risso (with large leaves), longifolia Risso (with long leaves), rotundifolia Emb & Maire (with rounded leaves), salicifolia Nees (with willow tree-like leaves), tenuifolia Mill. (with narrow leaves), and undulata Mill. (with undulated leaves).
In the Renaissance, the commentator on Dioscorides’ text Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577) who took pride in identifying new species of many plant genera, did not do so for Noble Laurel, for which he provided only a simple illustration, focused on the leaf and the bays. And, whereas he modified his illustrations in the many editions of his work, he maintained this simple image throughout the several versions of his massive work (Illustrations 4-5).

Sun and heat

As Theophrastus already noted, noble laurel does not thrive in cold regions (4.5.4), as, indeed, it definitely prefers exposure to the sun. The ancient Greek mythology did not only capture such characteristic, but it also translated it into a particularly expressive way by associating the noble laurel with Apollo, the god of light, of the sun, of the sunny heat, and also of inspiration as we will see.

This association took the form of a mythological tale according to which Dafne—which is the ancient Greek name of the noble laurel—was a nymph (a personification of nature in the form of a beautiful young girl) living in the fresh groves of her home with the nymphs. Just like all her companions, she had no desire at all to be married, preferring her wandering independence in nature. Whereas Apollo fell in love with her, she had no interest in an affair with the shiny elegant and charming god. As the story goes, the more Apollo followed her, the more she avoided him. Exhausted by Apollo’s harassment, Dafne implored her father to protect her and was transformed into a tree, dafne in ancient Greek, that is noble laurel. Saddened by her loss, Apollo took Laurel as his emblem, cut a branch, wove a wreath of laurel, and went to Delphi crowned with laurel. He established the Pythian Games—the first form of the Olympic games, which were held ad Delphi—where the winners were crowned with Laurel as are today the freshly promoted students earning their bachelor’s degree, the name of which refers to the nobel laurel and its berries (baccae in Latin).
With its preference for exposure to the sun, its fragrant foliage, its light aromatic scent, and its association with the sunny god Apollo, it is no surprise that noble laurel was considered warming and emollient in ancient times. In Dioscorides, De materia medica, noble laurel is analyzed as follows (Book I, chapter 78) without a description (apart from the distinction of two supposed species), probably because it was a well-known plant of the ancient natural environment:

Noble laurel. One species has narrow-leaves and another broader. Both are warming and emollient; therefore, their decoctions are indicated in sitz baths for problems affecting bladder and uterus.
Their fresh leaves are mildly astringent. Ground fine and applied as a cataplasm, they are beneficial on wasp and bee stings, and they also can assuage all inflammations when applied as a cataplasm with bread and barley, but they weaken the stomach and cause vomiting when drunk.
The berries are more warming than the leaves. Ground fine and taken as a lozenge with honey or sweet wine, they are efficacious for phthisis, orthopnea, and humors in the chest.
They are drunk with wine by those stung by scorpions.
They clear white spots on the skin.
The juice pressed out of the berries helps against earaches, tinnitus, and hearing hardness when injected into the ears with aged wine and rose unguent. It is also mixed with analgesics, warming ointments, and diaphoretic medications.
The bark of their root breaks stones, kills embryos, and helps hepatic patients taken in a quantity of three obols (0,72 gr. = 0.025 oz) with aromatic wine.

This information is echoed in the chapter dealing with the oil made of noble laurel bay (I.40):

The noble laurel oil is made with the berries when they are ripe, boiled with water. Below the film that cover them, they contain a sort of greasy substance that needs to be pressed by hands and collected with a spoon … oil of noble laurel berries is of excellent quality when it is fresh, pale green in color, very bitter, and pungent.
It has warming, emollient, distending, and anti-weariness properties. It is indicated for all afflictions of tendons, for shivering fits, earaches, catarrhs, and headaches. But it also causes nausea when drunk.

The prescription about stones in the chapter on noble laurel is repeated in Dioscorides’ chapter on Cardamom (I.6):

Cardamom in a potion with one drachm of the bark of the root is prescribed to break stones.

And inspiration

At the temple of Apollo in Delphi, the Oracle was vaticinating about the management of human affairs. People came from all over Greece to consult her about the management of their life. Her answers were cryptic and required proper interpretation. Most often, however, the solution was already present in the inscription engraved in gold letters at the entrance of the temple: Know yourself.
Though famous throughout the whole Greek world—including for the many conflicts that she helped end—, the priestess of Apollo (the Pythia) probably became best known in the fifth century BCE for her saying that there was no wiser man than Socrates (469-399 BCE). Rather than proud, the philosopher was disturbed by this peremptory affirmation as he claimed to know only one thing, that is, that he was ignorant. He thus embarked on a quest to prove that Pythia was wrong, which was an unconceivable endeavor at that time. He went around questioning everyone, hoping to find someone who would know something worthwhile and would therefore be considered wise or, at the very least, wiser than himself. To his great surprise and disappointment, he discovered that people had no real knowledge of what they pretended to know. He thus reluctantly accepted Pythia’s oracle because he knew for sure that he did not know anything and could be considered wise  for this reason.
The vaticination capacity of Pythia has been accounted for in different ways in modern literature: telluric emanations that inebriated her and generated prophetic visions, mystic trance, chewing noble laurel leaves, or inhaling the smoke of burning noble laurel leaves. There was a mythological link between Pythia and noble laurel. When Apollo fell in love with the nymph who was further transformed into the tree, he was at the sanctuary of Delphi, which he claimed for himself. As the story goes, when the nymph was transformed into the tree, Apollo took the site of Delphi, built a temple for himself made only of noble laurel wood, and took noble laurel as his emblem.
Going beyond the mythological tale, a 2021 study has reported the use of noble laurel as a memory enhancing in Anatolia and hypothesized on this basis a possible effect of noble laurel on memory function, bringing to light a correlation between exposure to noble laurel fumigation and improved cognitive ability on laboratory animals.
Might it be that the consultants of the Oracle inhaled the smoke of burning noble laurel leaves and delved deep into their long-term memory, finding by themselves the answer they were hoping to receive from Pythia to their existential questions? If so, Pythia helped them to better understand themselves by means of this memory-enhancing device as per the motto at the entrance of the temple, which sounded like an order: “Know Yourself”.
Whatever the explanation to this oracular practice, noble laurel might hold the key to deep memory investigation and brain regeneration.

Scientific articles
Awada F. et al. 2023. Laurus nobilis Leaves and Fruits: A Review of Metabolite Composition and Interest in Human Health. Applied Sciences 13(7) (2023), 4606.
Dobroslavić E. et al, 2022. Isolation of Laurus nobilis Leaf Polyphenols: A Review on Current Techniques and Future Perspectives. Foods 11(2) (2022), 235.
Chbili C. et al. 2022. Evaluation of daily Laurus nobilis tea consumption on anxiety and stress biomarkers in healthy volunteers. Archives italiennes de biologie 160(3-4) (2022), pp. 136–146.
Ordoudi S. A., et al. 2022. Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis L.) Essential Oil as a Food Preservative Source: Chemistry, Quality Control, Activity Assessment, and Applications to Olive Industry Products. Foods 11(5) (2022), 752.
Paparella A., B. Nawade, L. Shaltiel-Harpaz, M. Ibdah 2022. A Review of the Botany, Volatile Composition, Biochemical and Molecular Aspects, and Traditional Uses of Laurus nobilisPlants 11(9) (2022), 1209.
Brinza I. et al. 2021. Bay Leaf (Laurus Nobilis L.) Incense Improved Scopolamine-Induced Amnesic Rats by Restoring Cholinergic Dysfunction and Brain Antioxidant. Antioxidants 10 92021), 259.
Dhifi W. et al. 2018. Phytochemical composition and antioxidant activity of Tunisian Laurus nobilis. Pakistan Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 31(6) (Nov. 2018), pp. 2397-2402.
Caputo L. et al. 2017. Laurus nobilis: Composition of Essential Oil and Its Biological Activities. Molecules 22(6) (2017), 930.
Raman V., R.W. Bussmann, I.A. Khan 2017. Which Bay Leaf is in Your Spice Rack? - A Quality Control Study. Planta medica 83(12-13) (2017), pp. 1058–1067. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0043-103963
Peixoto L.R. et al. 2017. Antifungal activity, mode of action and anti-biofilm effects of Laurus nobilis Linnaeus essential oil against Candida spp. Archives of Oral Biology 73 (2017 January), pp. 179-185.
Aurori A.C. et al. 2016. Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) as potential antiviral treatment in naturally BQCV infected honeybees. Virus Research 222 (2016 15 August), pp. 29-33.
Raman V., R.W. Bussmann, I.A. Khan 2016.Identification of the True Bay Leaf and its Substitutes. Planta Medica 82 (2016), PB-40.
DOI: 10.1055/s-0036-1578688
Patrakar R., M. Mansuriya, P. Patil 2012. Phytochemical and Pharmacological Review on Laurus Nobilis. International Journal of Pharmaceutical and Chemical Sciences 1 (2) (2012 Apr– Jun), pp. 595-602.
Speroni E. et al. 2011.Gastroprotective Effect and Antioxidant Properties of Different Laurus nobilis L. Leaf Extracts. Journal of Medicinal Food 14(5) (2011), pp. 499-504.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1089/jmf.2010.0084
Ogle, M. B. (1 Laurel in Ancient Religion and Folk-Lore. The American Journal of Philology, 1910, 31(3), 287–311.

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