The evergreen bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), a symbol of victory and eternal life, is not as tender as some other Mediterranean species, but it must be grown in pots and wintered over indoors at The Cloisters. Above, left: Bay laurel topiaries like this one spend the winter in the glassed-in arcades of Cuxa cloister and return to Bonnefont herb garden in May. Right: The magnificent bay tree that flourishes at the center of Girolamo dai Libri’s Madonna and Child with Saints represents Resurrection, and is juxtaposed with the naked limbs of a dead tree.
The laurel itself is a bringer of peace, inasmuch as to hold a branch of it out even between enemy armies is a token of cessation of hostilities. With the Romans especially it is used as a harbinger of rejoicing and of victory, accompanying despatches and decorating the spears and javelins of the soldiery and adorning the generals’ rods of office. From this tree a branch is deposited in the lap of Jupiter the All-good and All-great whenever a fresh victory has brought rejoicing, and this is not because the laurel is continually green, nor yet because it is an emblem of peace, as the olive is to be preferred in both respects, but because it flourishes in the greatest beauty on Mount Parnassus, and consequently is thought to be also dear to Apollo, to whose shrine even the kings of Rome at that early date were in the custom of sending gifts and asking for oracles in return.
—Pliny, Historia Naturalis, Book XV, 133
The aromatic Laurus nobilis is the only member of its genus, but the botanical family to which it belongs, the Lauraceae, includes other trees prized both as flavorings and medicaments, such as cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylandicum) and cassia (Cinnamomum cassia). The Roman natural historian Pliny, writing in the first century, was at pains to explicate the already well-developed association of the bay laurel with victory—an association that was to be maintained throughout the Christian Middle Ages and beyond. The evergreen foliage and exuberant growth of Laurus nobilis made it a symbol of eternal life, and it is in this guise that the magnificent laurel of Girolamo dai Libri’s Madonna and Child with Saints appears.
The ancient Greek story of the transformation of a river nymph into a laurel tree was immortalized in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book 1, 452–53), a work that enjoyed great popularity in the Middle Ages. The story of Apollo’s pursuit of the unwilling Daphne has captivated poets as well as artists over many centuries, inspiring such famous interpretations as Antonio Pollaiuolo’s painting in the National Gallery and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture in the Villa Borghese.
Pliny remarks on the symbolic significance of bay and the special favor accorded the tree by the god Apollo, but also comments on the elegant and decorative nature of the sacred laurel, which provided garlands that were hung above the thresholds of both emperors and high priests to beautify and protect their households. The tree was also extensively grown in Roman gardens.
Although Pliny claimed that this Mediterranean native flourished along with the olive in the region of the Red Sea, the laurel is not a biblical plant. The famous passage in Psalms 37:35, as rendered in the King James and English Standard versions, in which the wicked are said to flourish “like the green bay tree” is the sole mention of the laurel. The sense of the original Hebrew is rather that of an unspecified leafy tree flourishing in its native soil, and it is now more commonly translated as such. The exceptional vigor of Laurus nobilis, as noted by the ancients, probably influenced the translators of the King James version.
Both Pliny and Dioscorides list a number of medicinal uses. Dioscorides considers it to be warming and softening in action; he recommends bathing in a decoction of “daphne” for griefs of the bladder; a poultice of the fresh leaves relieved the sting of wasps and bees; laurel might also be drunk in wine for the sting of scorpions. The juice of the leaves could be mixed with old wine and rose oil and dropped into the ears for hardness of hearing, while the bark of the tree broke kidney and bladder stones and benefited a sick liver (De Materia Medica, Book 1: 106). Pliny concurs with these therapies, but also offers a number of remedies made from the berries (Historia Naturalis , Book 23: 152–58). Wilhelmina Jashemski (1910–2008), who excavated the gardens of Pompeii and Herculaneum from 1961 until 1984, also researched the use her workmen made of local plants and determined that Pompeians still relied on boiled laurel leaves for bowel complaints, and boiled laurel berries for liver ailments, just as Pliny had recommended.
In the twelfth century, the German abbess Hildegard of Bingen maintains the virtues of this tree, which is sufficiently hardy to grow in the warmer parts of northern Europe. (Laurus nobilis is hardy to U.S.D.A. Zone 8; see zone map.)
According to Hildegard, the laurel signifies constancy. She classes the tree as hot and dry in action. While she discusses remedies using the bark and leaves—either boiled or powdered and baked in cakes—for stomach ailments, she gives far more attention to the healing properties of the berries, which may be eaten raw or pulverized and cooked in wine for fever, headache, and lung complaints. The oil expressed from the fruit could be applied, alone or mixed with the oil of juniper or box, to the limbs for gicht, an untranslatable term that covers conditions such as lumbago, rheumatism, and gout. It could also be applied to the inside of the eyes for cloudy vision (Physica, Book XV).
Baumann, Hellmut. The Greek Plant World in Myth, Art, and Literature. Translated and augmented by William T. Stearn and Eldwyth Ruth Stearn. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1993.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.
Hildegard von Bingen. Physica. Translated by Priscilla Throop. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.
Jashemski, Wilhelmina Feester. A Pompeian Herbal: Ancient and Modern Medicinal Plants. Austin,TX: University of Texas Press, 1999.
Pliny. Natural History, Vol. IV, Books XIII–XVI. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1945, reprinted 1960.Vol. VI, Books XX–XXIII. With an English translation by W. H. S. Jones. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1951, reprinted 1961, revised and reprinted 1969.