If you’ve ever accidentally chomped down onto a bay leaf, chances are you won’t forget it. Its bitter taste can be an unpleasant shock to your tastebuds (and not recommended by health professionals) but is also a clue – the bay leaf is a powerfully beneficial plant when you know how to use it.
Today, around the world, bay leaves are a plant spice that changes the aroma of many beloved home-cooked meals while simultaneously (and subtly) dancing through popular mythology and modern accolades. Bay Leaves have wafted alongside humanity through the ages.
Bay laurel or Laurus nobilis is a species commonly known as bay leaves. Other bay leaf plants used around the world include California bay leaf (Unbellularia californica), Indian bay leaf (Cinnamomum tamala), Indonesian laurel (Syzygium polyanthum), West Indian bay leaf (Pimenta racemosa), and Mexican bay leaf (Litsea glaucescens). All of these plant species have different qualities and benefits. Today we’ll be focusing on Laurus nobilis.
Indigenous to Asia Minor, this species of bay leaf spread to the Mediterranean, and then other landscapes with similar climates. It is an oval-shaped leaf with a pointed tip. The leaf is glossy and green when fresh, but turns to a dusty-olive color when dried.
In ancient Greek and Roman times heroes, emperors, and artists wore crowns of these laurels as symbols of honor and vision. The same plant that floats around in your mom’s chili recipe? It is said that the oracle of Delphi chewed on these bay leaves and burned them as incense to bring on visions of the future.
This association with honor and knowledge lingers in our modern world as well. Titles like “bacca-laureate” and “poet laureate” are linked back to the bay leaf and the crown of laurels worn in antiquity. Victorious Olympians have been ornamented with laurel wreaths since 776 BC!
Our world moves incredibly fast – but these sorts of plant echoes are all around us, connecting us to the history we have inherited.
While chances are slim that any of us will become laurel-adorned Olympic champions, it is still exciting to know these laurel bay leaves can enrich our lives in the form of delicious meals and added health benefits.
Bay leaves are an aromatic leaf. You’ll find them in stews, soups, broths, and other culinary dishes. The bay leaf aroma is what many people find most appealing. The taste of the leaf is a sharp and unpleasantly bitter flavor, so most of us would do well to avoid that. When cooking, add bay leaves whole. This will make it easier to remove from the dish before serving. There are endless recipes online that include this plant. Bay leaves are a popular addition to many Mediterranean dishes, especially in French cuisine, and people use them widely used in the Americas as well.
So what are the benefits of adding bay leaves to your kitchen creations?
As it turns out, bay leaves are an incredibly helpful plant for a variety of ailments. Chefs, moms, and herbalists have utilized its many positive impacts for millennia. Science is finally starting to catch up on why that is. As is often the case in the world of herbalism and plant benefits, more scientific study is needed to supplement the generations of folk wisdom and use.
Bay leaves contain a compound called parthenolide – a helpful ally when combating migraines. Bay leaf also contains eugenol, which is a compound that has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties and can help aid toothaches. Not only that, but we now know that bay leaves are anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. They can also help the body better process insulin, which leads to more stable blood sugar levels.
Herbal medicine uses bay leaves and berries for their astringent, diaphoretic, digestive, diuretic, and carminative properties. Whether it’s headaches, stomach aches, fungal infections, ulcers, rheumatism, or colic, people use bay leaves to aid and heal their bodies. You can even use the plant’s oil (Oil of Bays) externally to support the body’s recovery from bruises and sprains.
**A note: if you are experiencing ongoing health problems or concerns, it’s important to seek professional medical advice and treatment. Bay leaves can be part of our personal health practices, but they will not be enough to cure or treat serious health obstacles.**
Fragrance can be a healing tool as well, and bay leaves have plenty of that. Bay leaves have a powerful and soothing fragrance often compared to oregano and thyme. But bay leaves aromatic powers aren’t only limited to soups and stews – chemists and perfumeries are also able to extract myrcene from bay leaves which is a component of many essential oils used in perfumes.
The list of bay leaf benefits goes on and on. Like many other healing herbs, bay leaves can be a great way to soothe some ailments. They are also a rich source of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
However, one bay leaf floating around in your soup broth isn’t going to do much for your headache. Adding more leaves to the soup might change the flavor in ways you want to avoid. To engage with the health benefits of bay leaf more intently, try brewing a cup of tea. Add 3-5 bay leaves to hot water and lemon to taste. Drink when it is cool enough to do so and allow the effects of this powerful plant to go to work while you bask in the aroma of deliciousness.
Who knows, perhaps the Oracle of Delphi was onto something. Maybe you’ll catch visions of the future as steam curls up from your cup!