A laurel leaf is a leaf from any plant in the Laurus genus, but most often refers to leaves from the Laurus nobilis, or bay laurel tree. Laurel leaves from the bay laurel tree are also known as bay leaves, and have been utilized by humans for thousands of years both for cooking and for making medicine. Many grocery stores carry bay laurel leaves, as do health food stores and stores which carry supplies for herbal medicine.
Bay laurel is an evergreen tree native to the Mediterranean. The leaves have a distinctive strong, slightly spicy, bitter flavor. Companies may also sell leaves from the California bay laurel as bay leaves. These leaves are much stronger than those from their Mediterranean cousins. Though leaves from some plants in the Laurus genus are poisonous, bay leaves are quite safe to eat; other laurel species like cherry laurels and mountain laurels do produce plant toxins, but they are not used in the production of leaves and essential oils for culinary and medicinal uses.
Laurel leaves typically come as dried leaves. These need to be stored in a cool, dry place to retain their properties, and are best used within six months, though they can last up to a year if stored properly. Crumbled leaves can be used in sachets to flavor foods and make tisanes for medicinal use. Whole leaves can be used as is and strained out; eating whole leaves is not necessarily dangerous, but it is not terribly comfortable.
Sometimes, fresh or frozen leaves are available. People can use these much like they would use dried leaves, although it is important to use less, because the flavor is stronger. Laurel leaf essential oil is also available. This essential oil is sold in both pure and diluted forms and it is important to be aware of which form one is using, as pure essential oils can cause skin irritation and damage.
The Greeks and Romans both ascribed a number of properties to the laurel tree. People were given laurel wreaths to commemorate feats, hence the term “resting on one's laurels,” and the leaves were also widely used in food flavoring and traditional medicine. Many Mediterranean dishes even today are made with laurel leaf seasoning.
Medicinally, laurel leaf has astringent, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. It can be used in the treatment of skin irritation, conditions such as acne, and for mild inflammation. Hot poultices made with laurel leaf are sometimes recommended for sprains and strains. It can also be taken internally for stomach upset.