Sweet bay (Laurus nobilis)

This is an attractive evergreen tree, with glossy green aromatic leaves and spicy berries, used for culinary and medicinal purposes since classical times.

Medicinal effects

Sweet bay leaves are anti-inflammatory. They have been used since classical times as an infusion for digestive, respiratory and urinary complaints and the berries used to promote appetite. The leaves and berries have also traditionally been used for ague, arthritis and rheumatism, skin rashes and boils. The essential oil is analgesic, antispasmodic, antibacterial and antifungal.

Growing

As the sweet bay originates from Southern Europe it grows best in sheltered locations, where it can reach a good size of 10-20 m in height. However, the plant is often more useful when pruned into desired shape – thus it can be planted in a container, used for a hedge, or as a standard bush. For berry production both male and female plants are needed. It is also possible to make cuttings in later summer and grow additional plants. For more about growing and using sweet bay see The Medicinal Forest Garden Handbook

 

Sweet bay flowering

Harvesting

Harvest the leaves at any time of year, taking care to exclude damaged or diseased leaves. These can be harvested and used fresh but are thought to be less harsh for cooking purposes if used dried. To dry bay leaves you can hang branches up in a loft or an airy dark space. When the leaves are crisp but still green then remove from the branch and store in a labelled glass container or paper bag.

Research studies

There have been surprisingly few clinical studies of bay leaves and berries, although the antibacterial and antiseptic effects of the essential oil of bay are well-recognised. Extract of bay leaves has been shown to be anti-inflammatory (Dall’Acqua et al., 2009) and antioxidant (Fidan et al., 2019). It has been suggested that bay extracts could help to prevent oxidative stress and the production of free radicals in diabetes. A study in Tunisia based on 30 healthy volunteers found that blood fat levels could be improved which would reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (Chbili et al., 2019). In the research study on volunteers the tea was taken once a day and made with 5 g of dried bay leaf in 100 ml of water. More research is certainly desirable.

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 Ways to use

Make a daily digestive tea with a couple of leaves infused in a mug of hot water for 5-10 minutes.

An infusion of leaves or a few drops of essential oil in hot water can be used as an inhalation for respiratory complaints (take care with steam – it is hot!).

Mix 5 drops of essential oil of sweet bay in a teaspoon of carrier oil (5 ml) such as almond or olive oil, and  use as an application for swollen or painful joints.

Bay leaves can be used as an insect repellent, place dried leaves in drawers or cupboards.

 

Note that bay leaves and berries should not be consumed in large quantities as they can cause nausea and vomiting. The essential oil is not for internal use.

References

Chbili C, Maoua M, Selmi M, et al. (2020) Evaluation of daily Laurus nobilis tea consumption on lipid profile biomarkers in healthy volunteers. J Am Coll Nutr 39:733-738.

Dall’Acqua S, Cervellati R, Speroni E, et al. (2009) Phytochemical composition and antioxidant activity of Laurus nobilis L. leaf infusion. J Med Food, 12: 869-76.

Fidan H, Stefanova G, Kostova I, et al. (2019) Chemical composition and antimicrobial activity of Laurus nobilis L. essential oils from Bulgaria. Molecules 24: E804.