In the world of medicine, it doesnt get much more ancient than bay laurel. Native to the Mediteranean, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used this plant to stimulate healing. It was especially used in bruising and tissue damage, applied externally. But, there is much, much more to this one.
Notes from the Eclectic Physicians
Part Used: Leaf and oil extracted from leaf
In a Word: Bruise Plant
Uses: Increases circulation to joints and muscles thereby speeding the healing process; bruising, musculoskeletal injuries, chronically painful joints, neck pain, low back pain, sciatica
The Bay laurel tree grew in Israel while the Bible was happening and the Israelites saw it as being very much a symbol of their homeland. Today in Israel the bay tree can still be found growing in thickets and woods from the coastline into the mountain ranges. Though native, it is not a common tree. It can be a huge tree, reaching heights of 70 feet and more. The tree spreads and it can be as wide as it is tall. The tree is evergreen, produces white flowers and in the summer, blueberry sized black fruits.
Every part of the tree is loaded with aromatic volatile oils that have a really appealing scent. One of the leading features of the tree is that it stays nice and green no matter what the weather is like. Drought, torrential rains and hot winds do nothing to alter its green coloration. In a hot country, most trees go a bit brown before the summer is over but not this one. The bay laurel is like an artificial Christmas tree, green no matter what!
In ancient Israelite society, the Bay laurel was seen as a symbol of triumph over adversity, people that survived well despite whatever was happening around them were likened to the tree. The Israelites were impressed with the tree and so were all the other ancient civilisations around the Mediterranean.
This powerful tree has a major place in classical mythology. It was said to give oracles, visionaries, and soothsayers the power to see into the future. More over, it was said to radiate protective power and to prevent misfortune. There was a tradition of planting it near the house to keep lightening away all over the Mediterranean. The Greeks and Romans used it as head ware for their most esteemed citizens, priests, poets, heroes, and the like. In fact, the winners at the Pythian games as well as the Olympic games were given a head-dress of bay laurel leaves to wear about town.
Bay laurel was also the symbol of triumph and military leaders would send a branch of laurel to their Emperor to let him know they had won the battle. The historic record does not reveal what plant was sent to the Emperor when the troops had the crap beat out of them. Perhaps they did not ride into town in this case.
A hat made of laurel was also used to signify a person was a genius. The tree was so associated with creativity that sleeping on laurel leaves was said to make a man a poet. The Baccalaureate, the diploma of the French, literally means, “berries of bay”. This dates back to the Roman days when people of great intelligence were crowned with its leaves and berries.
The Romans believed that if you stood under a bay tree, you had perfect protection from lightening. Apparently the Emperor Tiberius had a pathological fear of thunderstorms and spent more than one night looking up at the mattress wearing nought but a laurel leaf hat. Bay leaf hats were also said to protect you from witches and wizards.
Tiberius was not the last Roman Emperor to have a personal affection for this tree. The berries were thought to offer magical protection from whatever pestilence might have been going around the village. Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) took this idea to heart and went running to the laurel trees whenever disease broke out in Rome. It seems you couldn’t get him out from under the tree under any circumstance. If you wanted to do business with him you had to crawl under the tree. When Hollywood makes movies about the Romans, how is it that we never see the Emperor hiding under his bed?
The important message to glean from all this history is that the ancient people saw the bay tree as a powerful plant. Every part of the tree, branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, and roots were thought to contain power and were used to protect people from all sorts of danger. This included disease, as we saw in the case of Nero. Putting a twig of bay on your head would make your brain more powerful and putting a bay ointment onto the body would stimulate healing, or so the ancients thought.
In order to develop an understanding of the ancients’ use of this medicinal plant we will start with Gerard. The great part about Gerard is he usually covers all the angles and gives us a well-rounded view of a plant.
Lung healer: “Bayberries with hony or cute, are good in a licking medicine, saith Dioscorides, against the physicke or consumption of the lungs , difficulty or breathing, and all kind of fluxes or rheumes about the chest.”
Brain stimulator: “Bayberries are put into mithridate, treacle, and such like medicines that are made to refresh such people as are growne sluggish and dull by meanes of taking opiate medicines, or such as have any venomous or poisoned quality in them.”
Stimulant to the digestive, urinary, and reproductive tract: “We in our time do not use the berries for the infirmities of the lungs, or chest, but minister them against the diseases of the stomacke, liver , spleene, and bladder: they warme a cold stomacke , cause concoction of raw humors, stireth up a decaied appetite, take away the loathing of meat, open the stopping of the liver and spleene, provoke urine, bring down the menses, and drive for the fecondine.”
Antispasmodic: “They are good also against cramps and drawing together of the sinews.”
Skin healer: “The oile pressed out of these, or drawne forth by decoction, doth in short time take away scabs and such like filth of the skin.”
First aid treatment: “It cureth them that are beaten blacke and blew , and that be bruised by squats and falls, it remooveth blacke and blew spots and congealed bloud, and digesteth and wasteth away the humors about the grieved part.”
Head ache cure: “The berries of the bay tree stamped with a little scammonie and saffron, and laboured in a mortar with vinegar and oil of roses to the forme of a liniment, and applied to the temples and forepart of the heard, do greatly cease the paine of the megrim .”
Kidney and liver Stimulant: “The bark of the root of the bay tree, as Galen writeth, drunken in wine provoketh urine , breakes the stone, and driveth forth gravel; it openeth stoppings of the liver, the spleene, and all other stoppings of the inward parts; which thing also Dioscorides affirmeth”
Let’s use the bay laurel to explore whether Gerard knew what he was talking about. By taking a trip into the lab we can see if modern researchers have found it to be as effective as the ancients said it was. I am not an apologist when it comes to herbal medicine. I have seen herbal medicine improve the lives of patients treated with it. I have seen the studies that validate my experience. However, I worry about the novice to herbal medicine who may have questions and reservations. Before we can look at the studies done on bay laurel we will have to find out what is contained in the fragrant bay tree body parts. Let’s do that first.
The entire plant, leaves, fruits, and bark contain volatile oils. These oils make the plant bits smell nice and are the fire behind their medicinal activity. The plant contains as much as 3% volatile oil. The oil is a composite of oils, it is 50% cineole, 12% alpha pinene, 11% linalool, and 10% alpha terpineol, 4% methyl eugenol. There are about 20 odd minor components in the volatile oil beyond the main constituent oils. All of these components work together to create the bay laurel scent and its healing effect. We will start our validation process by looking at the actions of the major constituents of the plant. Let’s look at cineole, the major constituent of Bay laurel essential oil.
Gerard says that the plant can be used to reduce pain in muscle spasms and migraine. The cineole found in the volatile oil would do just that. He also mentions it will make those dulled by other narcotics more alert. Research has proven that cineole is an anaesthetic, a sedative, and a central nervous stimulant. It works locally to reduce the amount of pain transmitted to the brain and works centrally to increase the activity of the brain. A clever plant!
Gerard says the ancient physicians suggested bay for any respiratory complaint. Cineole has been proven to be an expectorant, meaning it helps the lungs to move mucous out of the lungs. It also reduces inflammation of the tonsils, pharynx, larynx, bronchi, and nasal passages. That would help in the case of a cold or respiratory disorder. It is also a cough suppressant, which is what you want when you are coughing your brains out. Research has proven cineole to be expectorant, antibronchitic, anticatarrh, antilaryngitic, antipharyngitic, antirhinitic and antitussive. Basically, what ever is wrong with the respiratory tract, is helped with a little cineole!
Cineole has been proven to be antiseptic, bactericide, and fungicide. Gerard says that the plant will help to clear skin that is affected with scabby infections. The cineole contained in the plant is a powerful bacteria and fungus killer, two major causes of skin infections. Let us not forget that Gerard said bay laurel was excellent in respiratory complaints and that respiratory complaints are oft caused by bacteria. With the bacteria dead, the infections would disappear whether in the respiratory tract or on the skin.
Gerard says that modern physicians, those working in the sixteenth century, prefer bay as a liver aid as it opens up the “stoppings” in the liver. Cineole has been proven to increase the production of bile by the liver. It has also been proven to generally increase the health and functioning of that organ. Research determined the oil to be choleretic and hepatotonic.
A rubefacient increases blood flow to the part of the body to which it is applied. Gerard mentions that the herb helps to remove black and blue spots. Bruises occur when a blood vessel is broken and bleeding occurs under the skin. In time, white blood cells move into the area and remove the dead blood cells, but this takes time. The white blood cells make their way to a site of injury via the capillaries. Rubefacients make capillaries more permeable, thus white blood cells have an easier time getting into the wounded area and thus can more rapidly get the cleaning up accomplished. Cineole acts as a rubefacient!
Have a look at the rest of the oils contained in bay laurel and you will see that they have similar actions to cineole. The oil of bay is a composite oil and its action is determined by the interaction of all these oils. In this case, all the oils do similar things when they hit the body. Bay laurel, as a result of the oils it contains, does exactly what the ancients said it did.
Alpha pinene: A nti-cancer, anti-inflammatory
Linalool: Antiseptic, bactericide, fungicide, intestinal parasite killer, virus killer, sedative, spasmolytic
Alpha terpineol: Anti-allergenic, anti-asthmatic, antitussive, expectorant, antiseptic, bactericide, cholagogue
Methyl eugenol: Narcotic, sedative
I would say there is compelling evidence that the ancient physicians were right on track. Herbal medicine works. Its important to have faith in what ever medicine you use and I hope this little exercise helped you get a clearer picture of how effective herbal medicine is. I love the word summarise. Because herbal medicine is so old and so complicated, I feel the need to use it perhaps a little too often. After that science lesson I think it would be good to summarise bay laurel’s action. It is excellent for all conditions affecting the respiratory tract, it relieves pain, it increases the activity of the liver, improves digestion, and works as a wound healer when topically applied.
Bay laurel is used for arthritic complaints. The leaves are boiled in water to make a strong decoction. People then soak their joints in this solution, rub the joints with it, and put it in the bath. The berries pressed like an olive and the oil that is expressed is made into soap, a soap that is similar to olive oil soap. This is excellent for the skin. The oil distilled from the leaves of the bay tree is used in sciatica, low back pain, and pain that radiates from the lower back to the buttocks. It is also used when there has been an accident and bruising and tissue damage has occurred. The cream should be applied three times a day in both traumatic injury and chronic muscle and joint pain.
History: Seen through history as a powerful healer
Science: Contains volatile oils responsible for the medicinal activity
Practitioners’ Opinion: Excellent in accidental bruising and tissue damage
Disclaimer: The author makes no guarantees as to the the curative effect of any herb or tonic on this website, and no visitor should attempt to use any of the information herein provided as treatment for any illness, weakness, or disease without first consulting a physician or health care provider. Pregnant women should always consult first with a health care professional before taking any treatment.