bay leaf

One herb that often takes a backseat to the numerous other herbs in existence is the bay leaf. That is unfortunate because this leaf is extremely interesting in regard to its role in ancient history and its many uses. It could be the case that you’ve come across one at some point without realizing what it was. Or it could be the case that you will come across one in the near future and question why there is a random leaf in your food.  

Don’t fret!  The chef didn’t make a mistake; it’s probably just a bay leaf. For those who have never heard of bay leaves or want to learn more about their links to the past and how they can help you now in the present, this article will break it all down.

What Is Bay Leaf?

bay leaves

The bay leaf, also known as a laurel leaf, is an aromatic leaf which is indigenous to countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. These days, they can be found in many parts of the world and have a variety of purposes. Some people grow bay trees in their garden, and they can be pruned to either develop into a bushy shrub or small tree. They require lots of water and either full sun or partial shade to grow; taken well care of, the trees can reach sizes of up to 23 ft. or more.  Some people even grow them inside as a houseplant, and under these circumstances, they need the sunniest place in the house to thrive.


The leaves themselves are usually 3-4 inches long, oval-shaped, and taper to a point. When they are fresh, they are dark green, shiny, and smooth on the surface; however, when dried, their colors fade to more of a matte color.  In addition, their smooth surface becomes more leathery to the touch. As far as smell, they emit a woodsy aroma with a somewhat piney scent, and when tasted, they are mildly bitter. The degree of their smell and taste is dependent on how fresh they are, as the fresher they are, the more potent they are. Most bay leaves are completely safe for humans; however, not all are.

The Many Uses

bay leaves taken out of the jar

Bay leaves have been used for all sorts of purposes over the ages. It mainly functions as a spice due to its unique taste and smell, but it is also famous for much more than that. As mentioned above, the bay tree is indigenous to countries near the Mediterranean, and the countries there had a great reverence for it.


A Symbol Of Wisdom And Honor

One of the most interesting ways it has been used culturally was during the times of Ancient Greece and Rome. There are legends the Greeks created which feature the bay tree. To make a long story short, in their mythology, a nymph named Daphne was transformed into a bay tree in order to save her from abuse. As a result, the tree ended up becoming a symbol of honor and wisdom in their society.


During these times, the Greeks and Romans made crowns of bay leaves. These crowns were given to those who excelled and held high positions in society. Many scholars were given these crowns to wear as they represented the completion of a bachelor’s degree. Doctors also wore the crowns, and in this case, the leaves symbolized a cure-all. And finally, one of the most notable instances of the crown being worn is in the case of those who competed and won in the Olympic games.  


Incredibly, this dates all the way back to 776 BC. So, bay leaves have been used for quite a long time now and are still commonly used today. It has survived for generation after generation and will continue to survive for its even more renowned use as a very distinct spice.


A Spice Or Seasoning

The Greeks also used bay leaves as a spice, and they are still being used in the same way today. For example, you can often find them being incorporated into European (mainly Mediterranean), French, and American cuisine. Because of their unique aroma, one of the most common ways they are used is in the making of soups and stews. Just 3 or 4 leaves can add a lot to a soup or stew that is set to simmer for a while. They can also be used to add flavor to meats, seafood, vegetables, and sauces; the possibilities are seemingly endless.


India and Pakistan sometimes use bay leaves as a replacement for the Indian bay leaf when needed. In these cultures, the leaves are mostly used in rice dishes. While this substitution works, it changes the style of the dish it is used in, as the two different leaves have two different flavors. In Asia, countries such as Thailand, Laos, and the Philippines have special dishes which feature the bay leaf. More specifically, in Thailand and Laos, it is used in some Arab-influenced dishes such as massaman curry. In the Philippines, dried bay leaves help to enrich a popular dish called abodo.


A Pest Repellent

The strong smell of the bay leaf can also ward away unwanted pests in your home. Some recommend scattering bay leaves in areas of your home which suffer from infestations. It has been known to repel cockroaches, ants, mice, flies, meal moths, beetles, weevils, and silverfish; the list goes on and on. They seem to not like the smell and tend to stay away when it is nearby. By putting leaves in various places such as bags of flour, bags of rice, your pantry, or your cupboard, you can potentially help to keep some of those unwanted creatures out of your precious goods.  


An Entomology Tool

Those who study entomology sometimes use bay leaves in their killing jars. Crushed, fresh bay leaves can be placed in a jar beneath a layer of paper. An insect is then placed in the jar, and the jar is tightly sealed. The bay leaves slowly kill the insect while keeping them relaxed, and once they are dead, they are easier to mount.  

Nutrition And Health Facts

bay leaf

Bay leaves have several chemical properties which can be used for several medicinal purposes. Herbal remedies can be concocted which are effective in treating several ailments. It is not necessarily a cure-all, as the Greeks believed, but it is a natural substance that can be useful to the sick in their times of need. Thus, if you are someone who loves natural remedies, it might be worth your while to keep some bay leaves on hand and try them out when you aren’t feeling so well.


The chemical constituents of the bay leaf can help to ease and cure ailments which affect many parts of the body. One compound it contains is called parthenolide, which studies have shown is helpful in treating headaches. It has also been demonstrated that bay leaves can be effective in helping regulate insulin levels.  This is a great health benefit for those with diabetes as it is said to help treat high blood pressure. Since they also contain eugenol, the leaves have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Eugenol can be useful in treating stomach ulcers and other stomach related problems.  


Other helpful properties of the bay leaf are that it is an antibacterial and antifungal. Also, certain bay oils have been shown to help ligaments for sprains and bruises. At the end of the day, there is a vast array of illnesses and health issues that the leaves have been rumored to be useful for. In fact, there are so many that it is hard to name them all. Most likely, scientists have not even found all the uses for these leaves yet. However, here is a list of the health issues that the bay leaf is known to help treat so far:

  • High blood sugar
  • Headaches
  • Bacterial and fungal infections
  • Gastric ulcers
  • Bruising
  • Sprains
  • Rheumatism
  • Amenorrhea
  • Colic

Bay Leaf Tea Recipe

The best and easiest way to use the bay leaf as a natural health remedy is by making a tea. What is so great about making teas with bay leaf herbs? You can customize them to your liking by adding your favorite ingredients. You can even make a super-remedy by incorporating other ingredients which you know to be useful for treating whatever ailment you may be suffering from. 


  • 4-5 dried bay leaves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 liter of water

Directions: Mix all the ingredients together in a medium to a large pot. Bring them to a boil, reduce the heat, and let the mixture simmer for 20 minutes.  


Bay leaves are wildly interesting when you consider their role in societies throughout the years. They have many fascinating uses with some you probably never would have thought of. These days, it’s most commonly used for cooking and making herbal remedies, but we never know what other uses we may find for them down the line.