More about the laurel

More about the laurel


You already know about the legend of the laurel tree, don’t you after reading Open Sesame? These very columns carried the fascinating tale of the laurel tree a few weeks ago.

Now, here is something you might like to know about the tree itself. Did you know that tej patta, the sweet-smelling leaf used for cooking, also belongs to the laurel or ‘Lauraceae’ family? Its other names are sweet bay, bay laurel, or the bay leaf tree.

Originally found in the Mediterranean region, it is now widely cultivated in most parts of the world. In India, ‘bay leaf’ usually refers to the cassia tree (Cinnamomum cassia), which also belongs to the laurel family.

People in ancient Greece believed that the laurel was the favourite tree of Apollo. When Apollo chased the nymph Daphne, she was changed into a laurel tree in answer to her prayers and Apollo wore a wreath of laurels in her memory ever since.

He also said that the laurel would henceforth be the emblem for poets and winners. So athletes who won contests in the Olympic Games were crowned with a wreath of laurel leaves. So were poets who were considered to be especially good. You may have heard the term ‘poet laureate’. The expression means ‘crowned with laurel’. This is also where you get the expression ‘resting on your laurels’ from.

The bay laurel grows to a height of up to 60 feet. It has stiff, oval leaves that look somewhat leathery and are quite thick. The leaf edges are smooth and often curly. The tree has small greenish white flowers and blackish berries with one seed. Other varieties of laurel include tough and hardy evergreen shrubs.

They are among the prettiest of wild shrubs. You may have seen masses of pink, crimson, or white laurel flowers covering the entire mountainside. Or you may have marvelled at the way the shrubs brighten up a drab marshy place with colour. The flowers grow in clusters.

You find many kinds of laurels in North America. Some of them belong to the heath family, Ericaceae. Mountain laurel grows in the mountains of North America. The shrubs often grow to a height of 20 feet. They have thick clusters of pinkish-white flowers that grow at the ends of the branches. The leaves are large and leathery.  They are a bright and glossy green, smooth-edged, and pointed at both ends.

Sheep laurel, or lambkill is much smaller than mountain laurel. It grows in swamps and wet pastures. You also find them around   the Pacific coast. They have crimson flowers that cluster around the stem.

The laurel family includes sassafras, camphor, and spicebush, or wild allspice. All of them are trees and shrubs that are noted for their scents. A sweet scented oil is made from the berries and other parts of the sweet laurel.

The oil is used for making toilet waters and perfumes.  Dried bay leaves are used for flavouring in many kinds of cooking, especially Indian dishes. They are often an essential ingredient in tadka or seasoning.

Sometimes, people make small bundles with bay leaves, parsley, thyme, cloves, cinnamon and other herbs and put the bundle in the dish while it is cooking to give it an attractive flavour. These bundles are called bouquet garni and are removed after cooking. They are particularly used when making biryani.  Some also use bay leaves in pickles.

Some of you may be lucky enough to have a bay laurel tree in your garden. You should remember to pick bay leaves early in the morning and dry them under weight so that they don’t curl. After that they should be stored in an airtight container.

DH Newsletter Privacy Policy Get top news in your inbox daily
Comments (+)