If you are an American reader, you probably know what bay leaves are. You most likely have a small plastic canister of the dried leaves in your spice cabinet. You’ve cooked with them many times. But when we think of laurel leaves, we may well think of the Olympic games. The laurel leaf was a symbol of victory in ancient Greek mythology. It was also a tradition, in Ancient Greece, that a person’s hair might be decorated with certain objects that would identify their occupation, or rank, or achievements (such as Olympic victory). In the first Olympic games, held in Athens in 776 BCE, the winner of the race was crowned with an Olive wreath. Later, in the sixth century at the Pythian Games in Delphi, laurel leaf wreaths were awarded. 1These Pythian games in Delphi were not actually called the Olympic games, but were part of a cycle of Panhellenic festivals with games. See Panhellenic games. In the first modern Olympics, in 1896, second place winners received a laurel branch and a copper medal.
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Laurel Wreath, Love, and Victory
The laurel leaf wreath has its origin in the God Apollo. He was in love with Daphne, who was the daughter of the River God, Peneus (identification varies). Daphne desired not to marry, and she fled from Apollo’s desire, into the woods, where he chased her. She asked her father to help her escape, so he turned her into a laurel tree. From that day on, Apollo absolved to wear a wreath of laurels on his head.
Pausanias wrote that this association with Apollo was probably the only reason that the laurel crown was awarded in the Pythian games since they were held at Delphi, sacred to Apollo. Although we tend to think of all these ancient Greek events as “games,” they were also big religious festivals, and the Pythian festival was in honor of Apollo. These games are sometimes known as “Crown Games” because of the wreaths awarded.
Laurel wreaths were also given in many other important areas, such as the arts, literature, government, and education. The Romans took up this tradition and gave laurel wreaths to important people such as military leaders, and others. The laurel wreath was a symbol of power for kings, emperors, etc. and Julius Caesar wore a laurel wreath as a symbol of his supremacy.
Caesar declared the wreath to be the one symbol of a supreme leader and so, during the Roman Republic, only the supreme leader wore the Laureate Corona. These had ceased to be made with actual laurels, and were made instead with gold and precious stones. This led to the modern crown of Kings and Emperors. In the image below is Napoleon wearing his “laurel wreath crown,” from when he declared himself to be the emperor of France.
In the first “modern” Olympics games, held in Athens in 1896, second place winners received a bronze medal, a laurel wreath crown, and a certificate. First place winners received an olive crown and a silver medal. Gold medals were not given out until the 1904 Games in St. Louis. The expression “rest on your laurels” comes from these traditions. And in education, the term baccalaureate and bachelor are derived from the word baccalareus or laurel berry, stemming from the Roman tradition of awarding great scholars or poets with laurel wreaths.
Bay Laurel Leaves
Those unassuming dried bay leaves you sometimes throw into pots while cooking? They were a symbol of victory, power, achievement, and even love in the ancient world (Apollo’s love was forced upon him by a magic arrow, unfortunately, just as Daphne’s refusal of love). Yes, the laurel leaf and the bay leaf are the same thing. Bay leaves come from an ancient Mediterranean tree called the bay laurel tree or Laurus nobilis, from the family Lauraceae. Besides bay leaves, laurel leaves, or bay laurel, they are also sometimes called sweet bay or true laurel. Spanish speakers call them laurel and in Italian they are alloro. In French, the bay leaf is feuille de laurier.
They are, and have long been, one of the most widely used herbs in Europe and North America and have been cultivated for as long as written records go back. Today, they are cultivated in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Asia Minor and Central America.
The berries are also used for flavoring, and the wood is used for smoking, but the laurel tree itself, with wood that resembles walnut in grain and color, is good for making decorative cabinetry and other fine furniture.
The California bay leaves, or Umbellularia californica come from a bay leave that is related to the bay laurel. They are actually stronger in aroma and flavor than the Mediterranean leaves.
The Laurel Family
As important as the bay laurel is in cooking, the laurel family itself, consisting of over 3000 species of mostly evergreens that grow in tropical or warm areas, gives is one more extremely important spice: cinnamon. Also related to cinnamon is the Camphor tree, or Cinnamomum camphora, which is also known as camphor laurel or camphor wood. The leaves of this species gives camphor oil. And, if you love guacamole, you owe this family a note of thanks, for the avocado also comes from the family Lauraceae.
Sassafras, as well, comes from this family and its root was long used for making root beer, but was banned in the United States because of its association with liver damage and cancer. It still is used sometimes for making small batches of root beer microbrew. Some sassafras root extracts, with the offending safrole removed, as still used in root beers, as well as in teas. I have been told, although I cannot personally confirm, however, that hte safrole is responsible for much of that taste, calling into doubt the use of safrole-free extracts of sassafras.
Gumbo filé, or filé powder, used in making traditional Creole gumbo. Don’t worry, the leaves, unlike the roots of the sassafras do not contain any safrole, at least that can be detected. And if you even the root, as long as used occasionally and sparingly, is unlikely to actually cause you any problems.
Cherry Laurel, Common Laurel, or English Laurel
If you are looking for the type of laurel leaves, or bay leaves, used in cooking, which is the type described in this article, you should look for bay leaves and not laurel leaves. There is another type of plant that is also referred to as “laurel.” This is Prunus laurocerasus of the family Rosaceae (rose family). This plant is otherwise known as the cherry laurel, common laurel, or English laurel. It is not related to the true laurel, or Laurus nobilis.
Prunus laurocerasus, which has been used to make laurel leaves, is an ornamental plant and should not be used for cooking, as its leaves and berries are poisonous to humans. The leaves and seeds of the plant contain cyanogenic glycosides and amygdalin. This gives the leaves or seeds the smell of almonds when crushed. There is also an American relative, Prunus caroliniana, which is also cherry laurel, also toxic.
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