Bay (Laurus nobilis L.)

— This article by Jerry Cates was first published on 23 October 2015, and revised last on 3 April 2016. © Budsinthenews Vol. 6:10(6).

Bay (Laurus nobilis). Source: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen

Bay (Laurus nobilis). Source: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen

Bay (Laurus nobilis) is an aromatic evergreen tree with green, glossy leaves. It is a Mediterranean native, and one of several plants used for bay leaf seasoning in cooking. Known as bay, bay laurel, sweet bay, bay tree, true laurel, Grecian laurel, laurel tree or simply laurel, this tree figures prominently in classical literature.

A large number of  plants, from diverse botanical families, are erroneously referred to as bay or laurel. This conundrum is a result of a similarity in either foliage, aroma, or both to Laurus nobilis.

The Bay tree reaches 10–18 meters (33–59 ft) in height. Being dioecious, individual trees have either male or female flowers, but not both. Flowers are yellowish-green, 1 cm diameter, and borne in pairs axially. Leaves are 6–12 cm long, 2–4 cm broad, with entire (untoothed) margins that sometimes undulate in the primary plane of the leaf. Fruits contain a single seed, and are small, shiny black berry-like drupes about 1 cm in length.

Prior to the Pliocene era, during which era the Mediterranean began to dry, the region was much more humid. The huge laurel forests that originally covered much of the Mediterranean Basin were forced to gradually retreat. They were then slowly replaced by the drought-tolerant sclerophyll plant communities that dominate the region today. Most of the ancient laurel forests around the Mediterranean died out about ten thousand years ago. Remnants of these forests persist in the mountains of southern Turkey, northern Syria, southern Spain, north-central Portugal, northern Morocco, the Canary Islands and in Madeira.

Bay is often planted as an ornamental. The author has found numerous specimens planted in central Texas for this purpose. In a few cases, the trees appear to have developed from seeds dropped by birds or other animals, as the landowners have no recollection of planting the trees, or remember seeing the sprouts, and decided to let them develop.

Essential oils of the bay tree are derived from leaves and berries, and are comprised of some eleven distinct groups of chemicals. The primary constituent is eucalyptol (1,8-cineole; which is also found in camphor laurel, tea tree [5-15%], mugwort, sweet basil, wormwood, rosemary [35-45%], common sage, and a number of other aromatic plants). The fruit contains up to 30% fatty oils and about 1% essential oils; these essential oils consist of terpenes, sesquiterpenes, alcohols, and ketones. About 1.3% of leaf mass is essential oil, of which 45% is eucalyptol, 12% consists of other terpenes, 8-12% is terpinyl acetate, 3–4% is a variety of sesquiterpenes, 3% is methyleugenol (compare the 80–90% eugenol fraction found in clove bud oil and the 82–88% eugenol fraction found in clove leaf oil), and the remainder consists of other α- and β-pinenes, phellandrene, linalool, geraniol, terpineol, and lauric acid.

The author purchases bay in bulk for use as important ingredients in the manufacture of proprietary habitat modifying herbal cleansers.


  • Domain: Eukaryota (yew-carr-ee-OH-tah)  — from the Greek prefix ευ (yew) = good, well, pleasing + καρυον (khar-yone) = a nut/nucleus, thus organisms whose cells contain a nucleus and other organelles within membranes.
  • (unranked): Bikonta Cavalier-Smith, 1993 (bye-KOHN-tuh) — from the Latin bis = twice/double + the Greek κοντος = a punting pole; those eukaryotic organisms within the subgroups Apusozoa, Rhizaria, Excavata, Archaeplastida, or Chromalveolata.
  • (unranked): Archaeplastida Adl et al., 2005 (ahr-kee-PLASS-tih-duh) — from the Greek αρχαιος (AHR-kee-ose) = ancient/antiquated + πλασις (PLAS-iss) = a moulding + Anglo Saxon tid = time; a major group of eukaryotes, comprised of the red algae (Rhodophyta), the green algae, and the land plants along with the freshwater unicellular algae known as glaucophytes.
  • Kingdom/Regnum: Plantae Copeland, 1956 (PLAN-tee) or Viridiplantae Cavalier-Smith, 1881 (veer-id-eye-PLAN-tee) — from the Latin planta = a green twig; the plant kingdom, consisting of multi-cellular green plants, i.e., whose cells have cellulose within their cell walls and have primary chloroplasts derived from endosymbiosis with cyanobacteria containing chlorophylls a and b and lack phycobilins..
  • (unranked): Streptophyta Jeffrey 1967 (strepp-toh-PHY-tuh) — from στρεπτος (STREP-tose) = (easily) twisted, pliant + φυτον (PHU-tawn) = a plant/tree; the land plants and the green algal group Charophyta.
  • Subkingdom: Embryophyta Engler, 1892 (imm-bree-oh-FYE-tuh) — from the Greek εμβρυον (EMM-bree-yon) + φυτον (PHU-tawn) = a plant/tree; green plants, informally known as land plants because most are terrestrial rather than aquatic, while the related green algae are primarily aquatic;
  • (unranked): Angiosperms (AN-gee-oh-spurms)/Magnoliophyta Cronquist (mag-NOH-lee-oh-fye-tuh) — from the Greek αγγειον (AUGG-ee-awn) = a vessel/pail/reservoir + σπερμα (SPUR-mah) = a seed; the flowering plants, distinguished from the gymnosperms by having flowers, endosperm within the seeds, and the production of fruits that contain the seeds;
  • (unranked): Magnoliids (mag-NOH-lee-idz) — a group of about 9,000 species of flowering plants characterized by trimerous flowers, pollen with one pore, and usually branching-veined leaves;
  • Order: Laurales (LAW-rah-leez) — an order of some 2500-2800 species of flowering plants in 85-90 genera, comprising seven families of trees and shrubs;
  • Family: Lauraceae (law-RAY-seh-ee) — the Laurel family, embracing the true laurels and their closest relatives; comprised of more than 3000-3500 species in over 50 genera that occur mainly in temperate and tropical regions;
  • Genus: Laurus L. — from the Latin laureus = of the laurel; a genus evergreen trees in the Laurel family of three previously recognized species now in dispute: 1. Laurus azorica, native to the Azores once thought genetically or morphologically distinct from L. nobilis, but now, as a result of recent study, shown to be genetically similar, if not identical to the latter; 2. Laurus nobilis, known as bay laurel or true laurel, used as a culinary spice and the original source of the laurel wreaths of ancient Greece; and 3. Laurus novocanariensis, formerly included in L. azorica;
  • Species: L. nobilis L. — from the Latin nobilis = celebrated/renowned/well-known; an aromatic evergreen tree or large shrub, native to the Mediterranean, with glossy green leaves, with a prominent history in classical Greek, Roman, and Biblical culture; the species is a relic of the extensive laurel forests that once covered wide expanses of the Mediterranean Basin, during humid times leading up to the Pliocene era; during the Pliocene humidity fell dramatically, and the laurel forests receded, to be replaced by sclerophyl drought-tolerant plants of the present;

References: In process… we do not post references that are not in our at-hand library and that we have not thoroughly examined. The vetting process takes time. A list of appropriate references relevant to the matter presented in this article will be posted as it becomes available.

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