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What is Laurel Leaf?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Perdido — On Jun 15, 2011

Bay trees do well in USDA Zones 8-10. They can grow up to 15 feet tall -- my mom has one in her yard that's up to 12 feet right now. If I lived in one of these Zones, I would consider growing a bay tree, because I love the flavor that just one bay leaf can impart to a dish. Chicken creole, for example, gets a large portion of its flavor from a single bay leaf.

By nanny3 — On Jun 15, 2011

Am I a little bit off, or am I correct in thinking that the Roman and Greek gods wore laurel leaf crowns?

Whenever I think of ancient Rome in particular, I always picture these older men with togas on and laurel leaves on their heads…I’m thinking that this is stemming from some long ago lecture regarding Zeus and his brothers, Hades and Neptune. Wait, Hades is Pluto in Roman myths, I think.

I am pretty sure that I’m getting my Greek and Roman mythology confused, though. Is there anyone out there who can help to set me straight? And why do I keep thinking of these fellows with these laurels? It's driving me insane!

By Eviemae — On Jun 15, 2011

I love the symbolism behind the laurel leaves, and they really are quite beautiful. One of my favorite times at the end of some of our local sporting events is when the winners are given their trophies, and the tradition of giving a laurel leaf crown is also upheld.

It’s truly amazing that something that began all of those many years ago can still mean so much to athletes of today as well.

By Valencia — On Jun 15, 2011

@Potterspop - That's a wonderful story and a brilliant use of the laurel leaf's symbolism. Maybe you know that legend has it the Delphi oracle chewed bay leaves to aid her mystical powers. They say she also sometimes burned the leaves to produce smoke, which had the same effect.

A bay leaf can also symbolise honor, triumph and power. Think about all the phrases in modern language which have incorporated the word laurel. Poet Laureate is just one example. What an honor it must be to be chosen for such a position.

By Potterspop — On Jun 15, 2011

My wedding ring is decorated with Roman laurel leafs. I chose this design becaue laurel is said to be symbolic of creativity, purity, peace and achievement.

As I hoped for all those qualities in my marriage it was perfect. So far it's been spot on.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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