Bay laurel, also known as true laurel or sweet bay, is a small, evergreen tree or shrub native to the Mediterranean basin. It has been cultivated in Britain since the 16th century, and is still grown commercially in many parts of the world today. The plant's aromatic leaves and essential oil are valued for culinary and medicinal use. Although bay laurel typically grows to about 25 feet (7.6 meters) in height, it can grow as tall as 60 feet (18.3 meters).
The tree produces thick, glossy, dark-green leaves, known as bay leaves, that are commonly used as a flavoring in soups, stews and casseroles. The crushed leaf has an aroma similar to lemon and cloves, with a mild taste that intensifies with time. Bay laurel is dioecious, which means it produces male and female flowers on separate plants. The small flowers are yellow to yellow-green in color, and are borne in small clusters beside the leaves. Sweet bay also produces small, ovoid, black fruits or berries that contain a single seed.
In addition to its culinary popularity, bay laurel also has numerous medicinal benefits. The leaves, berries and oil have narcotic properties, but are rarely used internally. Instead, the essential oil is frequently used externally for treating sprains, bruises, swelling, inflammation, arthritis and muscle pain. The oil is diluted in olive oil or another mild carrier oil, heated gently, and then rubbed into the affected area for relief.
Bay leaf tea is sometimes used as an external treatment for dandruff or itchy scalp. A poultice made with the boiled leaves is a common natural cold remedy when applied directly to the chest. Other medicinal uses of bay laurel include treating digestive problems, stimulating appetite and regulating menstruation. The fruit was once used to promote abortion, as it causes the uterus to contract, but this is extremely dangerous and no longer practiced today.
The bay laurel tree is hardy, and can be successfully grown in most temperate regions of the world. It is resistant to the most common pests and diseases, and is even believed to protect the plants growing near it from disease. The plant is a popular garden herb, particularly in Europe, where the leaves are harvested year-round for culinary use. For the best results, sweet bay needs well-drained soil, full sun to partial shade, moderate fertilization and winter protection in areas prone to frost. Because it responds well to pruning and training, bay laurel is sometimes grown as a hedge or privacy screen in areas with mild winters.