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Laurel-Bay-art - 10/30/16


"Laurel, Bay and Gale" by Mistress Agnes deLanvallei.


NOTE: See also the files: Laurel-Tree-art, Gillyflower-art, fenugreek-msg, fennel-msg, onions-msg, coriander-msg, leeks-msg, angelica-msg, vegetables-msg, gums-resins-msg.





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Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Laurel, Bay and Gale

by Agnes deLanvallei


            When the recipe calls for bay leaves, most people know it's the laurel.  When Medieval recipes call for bay berries, it's not so obvious.  Here is what I found:


Laurel, also called Bay:    The laurel, Laurus nobilis, is a tree, classified in Laurel family, Lauraceae, and native to Europe.  The European and American common name for the laurel is bay.  The bay leaves of cooking are laurel leaves.  It has been used medicinally since classical times (Gunther 1934, Kiple and Ornelas 2000).  It is the tree whose leaves were used to crown victors in ancient Greece and Rome http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Atlantis/3699/laurel.htm, http://www.thegardenpages.com/bay_laurel.html and for which the Laurel Kingdoms of the Society for Creative Anachronism are named (Society coat of arms http://sca.org/). ; Medieval sources such as Culpeper and Gerard call the laurel, the bay tree. The laurel's fruit are berries that become black when ripe (Vaughan and Geissler 1997)  [quote Culpeper] photo http://www.thegardenpages.com/bay_laurel.html Laurels are grown in the U.S. but they are not frost tolerant, so the Denver Botanic Garden, for example, has them in big pots which they put inside during the winter.


The only alternative Medieval name that I found for this plant, besides bay and laurel, is daphne, which is the chief name Dioscorides gave it (Gunther 1934).  Today it's also called bay laurel and sweet bay.


California Laurel  This is a tree in the Laurel family (Lauraceae) Umbellularia californica.  It is native to California and Oregon. Its common names are California laurel, California bay laurel and Oregon myrtle. The leaves are locally used as a substitute for laurel (Laurus nobilis) when the recipe calls for bay leaves.  I found them slightly more resinous and liked the classical bay better.  The plant was used medicinally by native Americans.  I don't believe California laurel, leaves or plant, is sold commercially much or found (outside botanic gardens) beyond the U.S. West Coast.  USDA plants website (plants.usda.govhttp://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=UMCA ) shows its distribution as California and Oregon. 


Bayberry  The "bayberry" of the United States includes trees and shrubs in the genus Morella (formerly Myrica*) in the Wax-Myrtle family (Myricaceae).  At least four species are native to the U.S.:  northern bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), southern bayberry (Morella caroliniensis, formerly Myrica heterophylla), scentless bayberry (Morella inodora), wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) and California wax myrtle (Morella californica) (plants.usda.gov website). Also called candleberry, the waxy fruits are used for bayberry candles.


Northern bayberry of the United States, Morella pensylvanica, formerly Myrica pensylvanica, is a shrub of the eastern North American coastal plain from Kentucky to Canada. (Fernald, USDA plants).  I do not find it in American herbals (Millpaugh (1892, Lust 1974, Kowalchik and Hylton 1987).


Wax myrtle, Myrica cerifera, grows from New Jersey to Florida (photo USDA plants).  This plant appears in Lust (1974) with synonyms bayberry, candleberry, tallow shrub, vegetable tallow, waxberry. Lust lists a number of medicinal uses for the bark, leaves and wax from the fruit.  Millpaugh (1892) described uses of wax myrtle bark but also a list of unpleasant symptoms from frequent consumption. Kowalchik and Hylton (1987) list Myrica cerifera as bayberry and give a number of uses for its tea, despite a marginal note that says "suspected carcinogen."   The Physician's Desk Reference for Herbal Medicine (2000), says Myrica cerifera, southern bayberry, used as bark in herbal medicine, is safe is therapeutic doses, but causes vomiting in higher quantities. 


There are Myrica species in Europe.  Recent taxonomic work split the genus, leaving the Myrica species in Eurasia and recognizing most American species as distinct enough to warrant a separate genus, Morella.  Only two members of the genus Myrica in the latest revision, Myrica gale, sweet gale, and Myrica hartwegii, Sierra sweetberry, are found in North America (plants.USDA.gov).


Sweet Gale or Bog Myrtle. Myrica gale is considered native to both eastern North America and Europe.  Called bog myrtle or sweet gale,  other common names for it include Dutch myrtle, bayberry, meadow-fern, piment royal and boissent-bon (in Quebec) (Fernald,  PDR for Herbal Medicine 2000).  In North America, it's a shrub of wet areas from Kentucky and Tennessee northward (plants.USDA.gov).  I do not find it listed as an herbal medicine in American sources (Millspaugh 1892, Lust 1974, Kowalchik and Hylton (1987).


In Eurasia, Myrica gale is found across Scotland and Northern England, east across Scandinavia and northern Asia to Japan (Skene et al. 2000). The leaves are fragrant, bitter and astringent.


Common names for sweet gale in Europe include bayberry, English bog myrtle, Dutch myrtle, bog sally, black sallow (Grieve 1931, Allen and Hatfield 2004)


European uses of sweet gale include using the wax of the fruit for candles and dyeing skins with tannins from the bark (Grieve 1931).  The dried berries are used as spice in broth (Grieve 1931). Collected in the fall, it makes a good yellow dye (Grieve 1931).


Use for killing insects or as bug repellent is a common modern application (Grieve 1931, Simpson et al. 1996, Skene 2000).


Archaeologial evidence of sweet gale in brewing goes back 2000 years to northern  Holland, and is also seen in York, Lincoln and Cambridgeshire in England in the Middle Ages (Skene et al. 2000).  Written sources in the 10th century, from the continent, confirm its use in brewing (Skene et al, 2000), including Hildegard von Bingen's Physica (Throop 1998).  Beer made with sweet gale, grut beer, was replaced by hops (Behre 1999, Skene et al., 2000). Grieve says "gale beer" is "extremely good to ally thirst" (Grieve 1931 p. 341)


Other Myrica species are found in Asia, for example Chinese bayberry (Myrica rubra) and M. nagi from the Himalayas.


Mountain Laurel  Kalmnia latifolia (Ericaceae, Heath family) is a tree or shrub of the eastern U.S., not related to any of the above but rather to rhododendrons. 


Myrtle is the periwinkle, Myr (Myrtaceae). The name myrtle for periwinkle seems to be American, not European


Daphne –the name Dioscorides used for the laurel is now associated with shrubs and trees of the Family Thymeleaceae, with fragrant flowers and poisonous berries.  Several species of Daphne are native to Europe, and Gerard discusses them using the names spurge laurel, mezereon, and olive spurge, which are the common names used in Blamey and Grey-Wilson (1989).  Dioscorides (Gunther 1932), Gerard (1599, 1633) and Culpeper all recognize they are poisonous.  Linneaus is apparently responsible for making the scientific name of spurge laurel Daphne.  (In the Greek legend, the nymph Daphne turns herself into a laurel, not a spurge laurel).  There is enough similarity of appearance that the Greek and Roman names for spurge laurel were daphnoides, which is "like daphne (laurel):" (Gerard 1633, Fernald 1970).


Medieval Names:  A Medieval recipe calling for bay berries probably means laurel berries.  I found references to "bay berries" meaning berries of the laurel, in Dioscorides (Roman Empire AD 64, quoted through much of the Middle Ages, Gunther 1934),  Hildegard von Bingen's Physica (Germany, 1200, Throop 1998),Culpeper (England, online at http://www.med.yale.edu/library/historical/culpeper/culpeper.htm, and Gerard's Herbal (unabridged1633 edition, 1599 edition online:  ). Medieval recipes ask for sweet gale or bog myrtle berries if it wanted berries from Myrica gale.  Calling Myrica and Morella species "bay" seems to be an American common name, not a European one.


Safety of "bay berries"


Safety of  laurel berries:  doubtful. My Physician's Desk Reference (PDR) for Herbal Medicines (2nd ed, 2000) says "no health hazards or side effects are known in conjunction with the proper administration of designated theraputic doses." which their usual disclaimer when no bad effects are known.  But modern uses seem to be mainly external.  Obviously we eat bay leaves, but in tiny amounts.  Grieve (1931) says laurel berries were used to induce abortions( Online at http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/comindx.html ). So I'd be cautious about consuming laurel fruits in any quantity.


Bayberries/ wax myrtle berries: probably unsafe to eat. As noted above, there are a lot of negatives to eating wax myrtle berries. http://www.drugs.com/npc/bayberry.html says they should not be taken internally rating the risk moderate to serious. Kiple and Ornelas ( 2000) say bayberry leaves are used as a mild substitute for bay (laurel) leaves.


Sweet gale: very unsafe (?) Myrica gale is considered very unsafe as a food ingredient (Physicians Desk Reference  2000) because  the volatile oil of sweet gale is "considered toxic" and that sweet gale extracts in beer "is said to have led to manic episodes." (p. 746).  Multiple sources quote French uses of it as an abortifacient (Grieve 1931, Simpson et al., 1996, Skene et al. 2000), though they may all be quoting the same statement.  Simpson et al. (1996), however, point out that there is widespread use of sweet gale flavored drinks in Scandinavia, without severe problems.  My search MedLine did not come up with a clinical study that was definitive about sweet gale dangers. 


Sometimes when the authorities disagree on safety, it's because no one has studied the subject systematically.  When the data that different groups quote is in conflict, one possibility is that the safe and unsafe plant uses were different.  Uses of the same plant can differ because the plant shifts from nontoxic to toxic during the year (which is apparently the case with poke, Phytolacca americana), varies across it's geographic range, being more toxic in some regions than others (possibly the case for deadly nightshade, Solanum nigrum) or because there are several species with different toxicities (acorns are more edible from some oak species than others).  Human variation of course also affects different outcomes.  Using more than the traditional amount generally increases the risk of problems. Concentrating the active ingredients, which can be inadvertently done in brewing, also changes the chance of problems.  Of course, people with compromised immune systems, pregnant women, people of small body mass, etc. all are at greater risk than large healthy people.  




* Scientific names change generally when new data becomes available. The Flora of North America is currently being written (efloras site) and molecular studies are comparing plant DNAs, leading to a spurt of renaming.  Thus, the genus Myrica has been divided, with most of the American species now called Morella but the European species retained in the older genus, Myrica.


Allen, D. E. and G. Hatfield. 2004. Medicinal plants in folk tradition. An ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Timber Press, Portland, OR.


Behre, K-E. 1999. The history of beer additives in Europe – a review. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 8:35-48.


Blamey, M. and C. Grey-Wilson. 1989. The illustrated flora of Britain and northern Europe. Hodder and Stoughton, London.


Culpeper http://www.med.yale.edu/library/historical/culpeper/culpeper.htm

Complete herbal and the English physician. Foulsham Press.


Fernald, M. L. 1970. Gray's manual of botany.  D. Van Nostrand Company, New York.


Gerard, John.  The Herbal or General history of plants.  Complete 1633 edition as revised and enlarged by Thomas Johnson. Dover Publications, Inc. New York.


Grieve, Mrs. M. 1971. A modern herbal. Originally 1931. Dover Publications, New York.


Gunther, Robert T, editor. 1934. The Greek herbal of Dioscorides.  Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.  [written approximately 64 AD, "illustrated by a Byzantine A.D. 512. Englished by John Goodyer A.D. 1655"]


Kiple, K. F. and K. C. Ornelas, 2000 The Cambridge world history of food. Cambridge U. Press, Cambridge UK.


Kowalchik, C. and W. H. Hylton, editors. 1987. Rodale's illustrated encyclopedia of herbs.  Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA.


Lust, J. 1974. The herb book. Bantam Books, New York.


Meyer, F. G., E.E. Trueblood and J. L. Heller, editors. 1999. The Great Herbal of Leonard Fuchs. 1542 edition. Stanford University Press, Palo Alto. CA.


Millpaught, C. F. 1892. American medicinal plants. Unabridged reprint. (1974)  Dover Publishers, New York.


Physician's Desk Reference (PDR) for Herbal Medicines.  2000.  2nd ed,


Plants.usda.gov  Website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with plant common and scientific names, pictures and U.S. distributions.


Simpson, M.J. A., D. F. MacIntosh, J. B. Cloughley and A. E. Stuart. 1996. Past, present and future utilization of Myrica gale (Myricaceae). Economic Botany 50 (1): 122-129.


Skene, K. J. I. Sprent, J. A. Raven and L. Herdman. 2000.  Myrica gale L. Biological flora of the British Isles.  Journal of Ecology 88: 1079-1094.


Throop, P. translator. 1998. Hildegard von Bingen's Physica. Healing Arts Press, Rochester, VT.


Vaughan, J. G. and C. Geissler 1997. The new Oxford book of food plants.  Oxford University Press, Oxford.




Hunt, T. 1989. Plant names of Medieval England. D.S. Brewer, Publishers. Suffolk, UK.


Mabey, Richard editor. 1987. The Gardener's Labyrinth by Thomas Hill. (originally 1577) Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.


Pollington, S. 2000. Leechcraft.  Early English charms, plant lore and healing.  Anglo-Saxon Books, Norfolk, England.





Copyright 2009 by Holly Howarth. <sablegreyhound at hotmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org