BAY – an ancient tree

photo of Noble bay and its essential oil from the leaves.
Bay leaf & oil

Bay, an ancient tree with a long history of uses; folklore; and modern use


By Jeanne Rose

COMMON NAME/LATIN BINOMIAL ~ Bay or Mediterranean Bay, Laurus nobilis. Other names include Bay Laurel, Sweet Bay, True Laurel, or Grecian Laurel.

Family ~ Lauraceae

            The California Bay, Umbellularia californica, in Family Lauraceae, has common names, including California Laurel, Pepperwood bay tree, and Oregon Myrtle.

  • To be clear, this is why you have to learn the scientific name of any plant to truly convey who/what you are talking about.

COUNTRIES OF ORIGINS ~ The Mediterranean Basin is the home of the Bay tree and once contained widespread forests when the climate was more humid. Some remnant forests remain in the area, including southern Spain and Turkey and northern Syria, parts of Morocco, and the Canary Islands. Bay trees of this species grow in many places, including my area (California).

            Today Bay Laurel essential oil comes from several areas, including Albania, Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia.

ENDANGERED OR NOT ~ The Bay Laurel is considered a threatened plant.

GENERAL DESCRIPTION OF PLANT HABITAT AND GROWTH ~ The Laurus nobilis species is dioecious (individual flowers are either male or female), with star-shaped male and female flowers on separate plants. This means that only one sex is to be found on any plant, so both male and female plants must be grown if seed is required). It is pollinated by bees. The plant is not self-fertile.1

            In the past, even when following a text that gave me the information on how to separate plants based on their structure and using a plant ID book, I have been slow to learn the difference between the California Bay and the Mediterranean Bay.  Ann Harman gave me a quick lesson once and suggested I concentrate on the difference in the flowers; as the Noble Bay is dioecious, in that male and female flowers are on separate plants, while the California Bay is monoecious, has perfect flowers in that the males and female parts are in the same flower.

I feel that you can also tell the difference between the Bays by looking at the leaves. Mediterranean Bay leaves are more ovate, with a slight wave to their edges. California Bay has longer, slimmer, more lance-like leaves. And when shopping for true Bay, in the herb or grocery store, you will note on the label that they usually come from Italy, Greece, or somewhere else in the Mediterranean.  The taste and smell are also different – Noble Bay’s scent and taste are more delicate and refined, while California Bay’s scent and taste are stronger, more pungent, and spicier.

photo of leaves of both Noble Bay and California Bay
Photo of both the Noble Bay (top) and the California Bay (below)

Find a good Field Guide Book and learn how to identify plants by their external and internal look.


            Three different trees are called Bay Laurel; in this article, we will concentrate on the Mediterranean Bay Laurel, Laurus nobilis.  The other trees mistaken for this tree and also called Bay Laurel are the Umbellularia californica from California; the Haitian Bay, native to the Caribbean and used in cooking, and a cologne called Bay Rum, whose common name is also Bay rum, Pimenta racemosa. Here is a comparison photo of the leaves and flowers taken by Jeanne Rose.

a photo of 3 different trees' leaves, all called Bay but different genus and species.
Bay trees: Bay Laurel, California Bay, and Bay Rum.

            The Bay leaves are extracted by hydro-distillation and are best done in copper or stainless steel. No considerable variations were observed in the chemical composition of the oils throughout the year. Moreover, and due to the good energy and values obtained, our results showed that the exhausted plant material obtained after distillation could be a putative fibrous feed for ruminants.2

Yield ~ Essential oil yields were 0.9 ± 0.5% (v/w) of dry weight and decreased to 0.3% (v/w) when flowers or fruits were present. 2 In Bulgaria, these are the results of GC/MS.: The oil yield was 0.78%, 0.80%, and 3.25% in the fruits, twigs, and leaves, respectively.3


• SOURCE (S) ~ Prima Fleur Botanicals is an excellent source of true Bay laurel essential oil.

a bottle of bay laurel essential oil; clear and colorless
fragrant Bay leaf oil

• Bay leaf oil

Chart showing organoleptics of two types of bay leaf oil.
Organoleptics of two types of Bay leaf oil

ODOR DESCRIPTION/ AROMA ASSESSMENT ~ Laurel Bay has predominant notes of herbs and florals with subsidiary notes of fruity and spicy, and Bay rum is predominantly spicy with fruity notes and back notes that include herbaceous and camphoraceous.

CHEMICAL COMPONENTS OF BAY LAUREL ~ The most abundant component found in Bay Laurel essential oils is 1,8-cineole, also called eucalyptol. The leaves contain about 1.3% essential oils (ol. lauri folii), consisting of 45% 1, 8-cineole, 12% other terpenes, 8–12% terpinyl acetate, 3–4% sesquiterpenes, 3% methyl eugenol, and other α- and β-pinenes, phellandrene, linalool, geraniol, and terpineol.

            In Bulgaria, these are the results of GC/MS.: The oil yield was 0.78%, 0.80%, and 3.25% in the fruits, twigs, and leaves, respectively.

The main constituents in the fruit EO were 1,8-cineole (33.3%), α-terpinyl acetate (10.3%), α-pinene (11.0%), β-elemene (7.5%), sabinene (6.3%), β-phellandrene (5.2%), bornyl acetate (4.4%), and camphene (4.3%).

            The components in the twig EO were 1,8-cineole (48.5%), α-terpinyl acetate (13.1%), methyl eugenol (6.6%), β-linalool (3.8%), β-pinene (3.4%), sabinene (3.3%) and terpinene-4-ol (3.3%).

The components in the leaf EO were 1,8-cineole (41.0%), α-terpinyl acetate (14.4%), sabinene (8.8%), methyl eugenol (6.0%), β-linalool (4.9%), and α-terpineol (3.1%)3

         Here in California, we have a tall local tree with fragrant and spicy leaves called Bay Laurel, Umbellularia californica.  The physical difference between the two species is not that obvious.  The essential oil separates the gentle Bay Laurel from the toxic California Bay. This difference in chemistry is an important indicator of the difference between Noble Bay and California Bay with its toxic component called umbellulone.

3-part photo of Bay leaf + essential oils of both Bay and Haitain bay + Haitian Bay leaves.



In general, the Bay tree oil is used in cosmetics for soap and aroma, in perfumery,

And the leaves used in food as a spice.

PROPERTIES AND USES ~ The Bay Laurel has many properties, including abortifacient, anti-rheumatic, antiseptic, culinary appetizer, aromatic, astringent, carminative, diaphoretic, digestive, diuretic, emetic, emmenagogue, narcotic, parasiticide, stimulant, and stomachic. The leaves have been used in the treatment of cancer of the uterus and in the treatment of a variety of respiratory issues such as bronchitis and flu or in drops for earache; in the treatment of hysteria; to stimulate the appetite; relieve the pain of aching joints. Some of these uses date back to Roman times.

            Laurel fruit has been used in carminative medicines and, in the past, used to promote abortion4. How this came about is unknown. The fixed oil from the fruit is used externally to treat sprains, bruises, etc., (as an application) and is sometimes used as ear drops to relieve pain4. The essential oil from the leaves has antibacterial and fungicidal properties.

BAY OIL USED EXTERNALLY IN SKIN CARE ~ Bay oil has a pleasant scent, more herbaceous and floral than Bay Rum oil. It has use in external products as an after-shave, in body scrubs or oils, in soaps, and for use in the shower or bath.  Be wary of what you purchase as Bay Laurel, as I have seen in products by major companies using Bay rum as a substitute.  Know the difference by their scent.

DIFFUSE/DIFFUSION ~ EMOTIONAL/ENERGETIC USE ~ The mystery of aromatherapy —Get to know the subtle scents of these oils and be able to create a variety of emotional and physical changes by inhalation. Bay Laurel by inhalation is soothing to the respiratory system and is useful for colds and virus infections. Many oils can be used for the respiratory system, so choose one that you know and choose one to learn from. This will expand your knowledge of essential oils.


It Blends Best with citrus, herb, and resinous oils.  If you get a Laurel oil with a floral odor, use it in a skin care product.

Blending with formula – Here is an idea for using Bay leaf oil in a perfume. The Noir 29 by Le Labo is an aromatic fragrance for women and men. This scent was launched in 2015. The nose behind this fragrance is Frank Voelkl. The top notes are Fig, Bay Leaf, and Bergamot; the middle notes are Cedar (not identified which cedar), Vetiver and Musk; the base notes are Tobacco and Hay.

Leah Vautrot took this photo of Bay Leaf in Golden Gate Park.
Bay leaf, photo by Leah


BAY LEAF HYDROSOL ~ The Bay in my yard is usually distilled twice a year, and 1.5 gallons of the wondrous hydrosol will be collected each time.  It is drunk as a tonic (1 t. per 1 glass of water) for your entire female needs, especially when they are serious such as with uterine fibroids or breasts that ache and are tender.

This hydrosol stimulates lymph and circulation, tones the intestine, and relieves gas. It can be externally applied and will act as a broad-acting antiseptic. It can be gargled as a mouthwash to relieve the pain of sore throat or tonsillitis and for dental hygiene. Add this hydrosol to all sorts of foods or steaming vegetables for a great taste.

Several kinds of trees are called Bay.  The Mediterranean or Grecian Bay Laurel, Laurus nobilis, is the tree most often associated with the name Bay, which this article references.                     

PLEASE NOTE: A true hydrosol should be specifically distilled for the hydrosol, not as a co-product or a by-product of essential oil distillation. The plant’s cellular water has many components most are lost under pressurized short steam runs for essential oil or by using dried material. We recommend that the producers specifically distill for a product by using fresh plant material.

HERBAL USE ~ The leaves can be used in a compress or for any type of bath and is especially useful in a foot bath for aching feet or aching muscles.  And the true use of the leaves is a bouquet garni or in the seasoning of foods and sauces. The hydrosol and the whole herb infusion can be used in veterinary care for farm animals and your dogs.

KEY USE ~ The oil an expectorant or mucolytic.

HISTORICAL USES/INTERESTING INFORMATION ~ The plant was called daphne, after the mythic mountain nymph in ancient Greece. In the myth of Apollo and Daphne, the god Apollo fell in love with Daphne, a priestess of Gaia (Mother Earth), and when he tried to seduce her, she pleaded for help and called to Gaia, who transported her to Crete. In Daphne’s place, Gaia left a laurel tree, from which Apollo fashioned wreaths to console himself.  Other versions of the myth, including that of the Roman poet Ovid, state that Daphne was transformed directly into a laurel tree.4.

            The bays tree has a long history of folk use in treating many ailments, particularly as an aid to digestion and in treating bronchitis and influenza.


This work is sponsored and supported by Prima Fleur Botanicals.



Scent snapshots of Bay Laurel and Haitian Bay.



2. Industrial Crops and Products, vol. 30, issue 2, September 2009, Pages 259-264, Essential oil, and by-products of distillation of bay leaves (Laurus nobilis L.) from Argentina

3. Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activity of Laurus nobilis L. Essential Oils from Bulgaria.



Copeland, Dawn. Essential Oil Profiles. Completed for the Aromatherapy Studies Course. 2005

Mabberley, D. J. Mabberley’s Plant-Book, 3rd edition, 2014 printing, Cambridge University Press.

Rose, Jeanne.  375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols.  Berkeley, California: Frog, Ltd., 1999

Rose, Jeanne.  The Aromatherapy Book: Applications & Inhalations.  San Francisco, California:

Herbal Studies Course/ Jeanne Rose & Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1992

SOME CAUTIONS TO REMEMBER for all Plants and their Parts

precautions chart

DISCLAIMER:  This work is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for accurate diagnosis and treatment by a qualified health care professional. Dosages are often not given, as that is a matter between you and your health care provider. The author is neither a chemist nor a medical doctor.  The content herein is the product of research and personal and practical experience. Institute of Aromatic & Herbal Studies  – Jeanne Rose©

2 thoughts on “BAY – an ancient tree

  1. Another great profile! It has been at least a decade since I used Bay Laurel hydrosol but reading this article brought the scent and taste immediately to mind as if it were only yesterday. I want to revisit this hydrosol and perhaps use the essential oil. Armed with this information, I will know exactly what I want and where to obtain it. Thank you.

  2. Mahalo, Jeanne, once again, your info is very amazing. I have a California Bay tree growing in my yard on the big island. This blog gives me the difference between these Bays, and the leaf comparison gave me a definite answer to the tree’s identification. Mine is 20 ft. high. We have opened the canopy above it, so the leaves are beautiful. The Odor charts are also very helpful it points out the differences in the Bays. Helps me identify with the odor and its chemical composure. Aloha Joanne

Thank you for reading and your comments.