Bay Laurel

 
A branch of the Bay Laurel tree against a blue sky
 

Laurus nobilis

Cleansing - Prophecy

Bay Laurel is an evergreen shrub or tree in the laurel family (Lauraceae) with dark green and smooth leaves, white-with-yellow flowers, and purple-black drupes. Also called Sweet Laurel, Grecian Laurel, Sweet Bay, or simply just Bay, the leaves of Laurus nobilis are well known as a culinary herb; they are frequently added fresh or dried to soups and stews. As an important tree for prophecy and divination, the Bay Laurel has a special relationship with the Pythia (Oracle of Delphi) and the Greek god Apollo; its leaves are burned to encourage visions or used in the casting of lots. Drought tolerant and aromatic, the leaves can also be woven into wreaths or dried and wrapped in incense bundles for everyday rituals and purifying ceremonies.

Index


The Bay Laurel in the Wild & Garden

Franz Eugen Köhler & Walther Müller [ CC BY 2.5 ]

Franz Eugen Köhler & Walther Müller [CC BY 2.5]

Latin binomial

Laurus nobilis

Plant Family

Lauraceae

Common English Names

Bay Laurel, Sweet Laurel, Sweet Bay, Bay, Grecian Laurel

Common Greek Names

Δάφνη (THAF-nee)

Characteristics

Evergreen shrub or tree, relatively hardy

Native Habitat

Mediterranean

Preferred Climate & Conditions

Full sun to partial shade. Hardy in Zones 8-10 (in all other zones, be sure to bring indoors for winter.) Growing in the ground, can handle temperatures as low as -5°C (23°F), but prefers some shelter from winter winds. Typically found in the wild 20-300m (65-980ft) above sea level in scrub land (maquis).

Typical Height and Spread

5 to 12 meters (16 - 40 feet) in height

Bloom Color and Character

Dioecious (meaning the male and female flowers are found on separate plants) white-with-yellow flowers in spring (late February to late April in Greece). Black oblong berries are found only on female plants, usually first appearing in late summer to early autumn (late August to November in Greece).

Common Diseases

Yellow leaves (can be a normal sign of older leaves or a warning of too much water, cold weather, or poor nutrition); bay suckers (sap sucking insects found on leaves, resulting in curling and yellowing leaf edges); leaf spots (a sign of too much water); scale; white wax

Notes on Propagation, Harvest, and Preservation

A bay laurel tree growing against a wall

Propagate: cuttings taken from young shoots

Grow: grows well against a wall (for protection against wind and cold); also does well in pots (repot approximately every 2 years in spring)

Prune: trim in spring or autumn; can handle a hard cut back; often pruned into topiary shapes or trees

Harvest: leaves any time of the year; darker leaves are usually older, have less water, and hold more essential oil

Preserve: leaves can be dried and stored in airtight containers (leaves should retain a dark green color; if leaves are pale or brown, they have lost most of their potency and flavor, and should be added to the compost pile)


The Bay Laurel in Greek Mythology

 
Apollo and Daphne, painting by John William Waterhouse

Apollo and Daphne, painting by John William Waterhouse

 

Daphne and Apollo

Perhaps the most well-known myth of the Bay Laurel is that of Daphne and Apollo. Daphne — whose name means Bay Laurel in Greek (Δάφνη) — was a nymph of the southern slopes of Mount Parnassos in Phokis. Beloved daughter of the River Peneus, Daphne’s only desire was to remain unmarried, content to freely wander the watery groves of her home with her fellow nymphs.

Daphne’s grove lay just below Delphi, a sacred site of the primordial earth goddess Gaia - the mother of sky, sea, and mountains. Gaia’s child, the great serpent Pytho, guarded the area.

When the god Apollo arrived at Delphi with a desire to craft himself a place of worship, Apollo killed Pytho and claimed Delphi as his own sacred center. Gaia, in grief and rage, called upon Zeus to demand retribution. In response, Apollo was ordered by his father to undertake a series of cleansing rituals, the first of which sent him down into the Tempe valley to cleanse himself in the river to atone for his transgression.

But Apollo was drunk on his victory over Pytho and upon seeing Eros — that small cupid of desire — Apollo mocked him, saying that Eros should leave large weapons like the bow and arrow to greater gods like himself.

What, wanton boy, are mighty arms to thee,
great weapons suited to the needs of war?
The bow is only for the use of those
large deities of heaven whose strength may deal
wounds, mortal, to the savage beasts of prey.
— Apollo mocking Eros, Ovid's Metamorphosis

Eros responded to Apollo’s hubris by sending a golden arrow of desire into Apollo’s chest and a leaden arrow of repulsion into Daphne’s, so that the moment Apollo laid eyes upon the nymph, he would desire her just as strongly as she was repulsed by him.

And indeed, when Apollo saw Daphne, he immediately wanted her. Pining and hungry, he sought her attention, but having already devoted herself to a chaste life of freedom, and being further repulsed due to Eros’ leaden shaft, Daphne was wholly uninterested in Apollo’s advances and withdrew from him.

But Apollo was relentless. He followed and chased her along the river banks, praising her beauty and growing in his lust. The more she spurned him, the more he wanted her. Exhausted and terrified, she finally called out in desperation to her father to protect her. The River Peneus, hearing his daughter’s plea, transformed her into a Bay Laurel tree, so she could forever remain chaste and rest peacefully beside the river of her birth.

Apollo, saddened by the loss of Daphne, but still joyous from his defeat of Pytho, declared the Bay Laurel his emblem and sacred tree. He cut a branch from her body and wove himself a wreath of her branches and returned to Delphi, crowned in self-proclaimed victory. He built his own temple (which, according to Pausanius, was first made entirely of Bay Laurel) and established the Pythian Games, a yearly festival and physical competition in honor of Pytho, whom he’d slain.

Because of this, the Bay Laurel became a symbol of ritual cleansing, but also of victory, first for the Greeks and then for the Romans; many paintings, coins, and amphorae depict the laurel wreath as a crown of triumph. During the Pythian Games, especially, the victors were adorned with woven laurel wreaths and even today the “Nobel Laureate” and “baccalaureate” are awards of distinction.

 
Oracle of Delphi, red figure kylix, 440-430 BCE

Oracle of Delphi, red figure kylix, 440-430 BCE

 

The Oracle of Delphi

Once Apollo had taken over the sacred site of Delphi and established his center there, the oracle priestess of the temple came to be called the Pythia (after Pytho, Gaia’s Great Serpent who had once guarded the site).

It is said that the oracle Pythia would sit upon a tripod above a chasm in the earth, chew leaves from a Bay Laurel tree growing within the sanctuary, and shake a sacred Bay Laurel branch, all while inhaling the geothermal fumes emitting from the ground. In her divine trance, she would utter prophecies, usually in the form of poetic riddles (similar to koans) that would then be interpreted by the priests and querents.

“The Oracle” by Camillo Miola (Biacca)

“The Oracle” by Camillo Miola (Biacca)

The Pythia held significant power to guide the course of history; many famous prophecies were uttered by her (including that of Oedipus, the outcome of the Persian war, and countless others) and her wisdom was used to make political decisions. But before the Pythia was an Apollonian prophetess for the elite and politically powerful, her roots were firmly planted in the earth practices of the local people.

It is said that three oracular nymphs (one of whom was called Daphnis) lived on the slopes of Mount Parnassos. These three nymphs, called the Thriai, were responsible for inventing divination by the casting of lots, very possibly first by using bay leaves or some other plant petals, and definitely later using pebbles and the knuckle bones of goats and sheep. In fact, Daphnis was said to be the first oracle of Gaia at Delphi, before Apollo arrived. The Pythia’s later use of the Bay Laurel in divination is possibly a thread from these older practices.

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The Bay Laurel in Magick & Ritual

Cleansing - Prophecy

The Bay Laurel is a sacred herb of oracles and a potent source of prophetic clarity and wisdom. Woven into daily cleansing rituals, as well as used for prophetic or divinatory rites, the Bay Laurel lends its clarifying scent and warming nature to the clearing of spaces and the inspiring of oracular visions.

Regarding the Bay Laurel’s other association with victory or triumph: Apollo’s “victory” over Pytho and his chasing of Daphne seem to me to indicate a cultural shift, with a new god (Apollo) usurping the old nature spirits of the mountain (Gaia and the nymphs) by force. For this reason, and also based on my personal experience of communing with the Bay Laurel tree itself, I’ve never felt “victory” or “triumph” were actually key powers or messages of the tree.

Instead, I rely on its other powers — as a tree of prophecy and clarity — to guide my daily rituals. But I encourage you to do your own connecting with the Bay Laurel to see what it has to say to you about its own nature.

Priestess of Delphi, painting by John Collier

Priestess of Delphi, painting by John Collier

Parts Used

leaves, dried or fresh; stems and branches, dried or fresh

Safety

Leaves considered generally safe to consume and burn. Do not ingest the berry. There are many other trees with the common name “Bay” or “Sweet Bay,” including Magnolia virginiana, Umbellularia californica, and Pimenta racemosa, which can look similar but have different properties. Please be sure you are working with Laurus nobilis and not one of the other trees, as some of the other species are toxic.

Elemental Correspondence

Fire

Seasonal Celebrations

Fire Season: Summer

Altar

Any time of year, but especially during the Fire Season, weave laurel wreaths and crowns to adorn your altar, body, or ceremonial spaces. Burn the dried leaves in bundles or as single leaves for cleansing and preparing the space for ritual or divination.

Ritual

Include Bay Laurel in any ceremonies for clarity or prophecy. The dried leaves can be wrapped into incense bundles or burned one at a time, the smoke wafted to purify the air and mind. Use whole branches for ritual sweeping of the body and space, especially after illness or prolonged periods of physical-psycho-spiritual congestion.

Woven wreaths can be worn as a crown over the third eye and the incense from the dried leaves can be carefully inhaled to encourage divination, especially prophetic vision, speaking, or singing. Use the dried branches, still adorned with leaves, as a rattle to alter your consciousness and accompany your divinatory utterings or songs.

Dried or fresh leaves can also be used for the casting of lots. Write divinatory symbols or words on the leaves and then cast them on your altar or divinatory cloth. You can also place them carefully in a bag and, after focusing on your question or intention, withdraw a leaf and interpret its symbol.

Or sit beneath a Bay Laurel tree, enter a state of calmness, and inquire about your desire or question. Listen to the rustling of the leaves, feel the texture of its bark beneath your fingers, and stay open to the messages shared directly from the tree itself.

Devotion

Whether before your altar or the living tree, run your hands over the leaves and inhale the clarifying scent. Read the following devotion before or during your cleansing ceremonies, and especially before divination:

Sweet Daphne, sacred herb of the oracles,
impart your clarity
so that I may see divine wisdom
and speak divine truth.

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The Bay Laurel in the Kitchen & Apothecary

Dried bay leaves in a woven basket

Parts Used

leaves, dried or fresh

Culinary Flavor and Use

Dried bay leaves are delicious in stews, soups, and casseroles; they can be added whole directly into the cook pot. Be sure to remove the leaves before serving the dish, as they are quite tough to chew and are not meant to be consumed, only used as flavoring.

The dried leaves in your pantry should retain a dark green color; if leaves are pale or brown, they have lost most of their potency and flavor, and should be added to the compost instead of the cook pot.

Fresh bay leaves have a more delicate flavor and are wonderful for shorter cook times. They are often added to slow-warming dessert creams or oils, but can also be used like the dried leaves.

Traditional Medicinal Applications

The Bay Laurel is warming, with a slight peppery taste, and is wonderful for use during the cold winter months. The leaves are often added to soups and stews to aid in digestion and can also be drunk as a tea for the same purpose. For colds and flu, the leaves are used in a steam-inhalation or the essential oil can be added to a chest rub for congestion relief. The hydrosol and essential oil combine well with eucalyptus, rosemary, or sage, as well as citrus.

Main Chemical Constituents

eucalyptol, terpenes, sesquiterpenes, linalool, geraniol, terpineol, and others

Safety and Drug Interactions

Leaves considered generally safe to consume and burn. Do not ingest the berry. There are many other trees with the common name “Bay” or “Sweet Bay,” including Magnolia virginiana, Umbellularia californica, and Pimenta racemosa, which can look similar but have different properties. Please be sure you are working with Laurus nobilis and not one of the other trees, as some of the other species are toxic.

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