Bay Laurel: Symbol of Victory, Absent From Olympic Games

Adorn your garden with this noble herb


Maybe her invite was lost in the mail. Or, perhaps, out of exhaustion, she’s entered semi-retirement. After all, being the premier symbol for all things remarkable, honorable and victorious must be taxing. And sitting atop thousands of sweaty athletes’ heads century after century is, surely, off-putting. Whatever the reason, the bay laurel has been sorely missed in this summer’s Olympic Games.

Laurus nobilis, from the Celtic word, laur, meaning “green,” and the Latin word, nobilis, meaning, “notable,” is also known as sweet bay, Grecian laurel, Roman laurel, noble laurel or Apollo’s bay leaf. Wonderfully aromatic and evergreen, even her name connotes greatness.

Bay Laurel’s rise to become the international darling of prestige is rooted in Classical Mythology. Story has it, Apollo, the Greek god of the sun and music, had mad love for Daphne, a river nymph. However, the feelings were not mutual. One day, exhausted from frantically fleeing Apollo’s persistent advances, she begged her father, Peneus, a Thessalian river god, to turn her into a bay laurel tree. Although reluctant, he honored her wish. And just as Apollo approached, he watched as Daphne’s arms morphed into branches, her hair into leaves and her feet into roots. Devastated, Apollo mourned, cut off a branch, held it close and vowed to hold the bay laurel tree in the highest regard for evermore. 

Ever since, garlands and crowns of bay leaves, symbolizing triumph, have been bestowed upon remarkable poets, scholars, returning war heroes, and victorious athletes. Even the term, Baccalaureate, a degree for scholarly achievement, means, “berries of laurel.” And the glory of being appointed a Poet Laureate? Well, you get the connection. 

This makes her exclusion from the games' medal engravings and ceremonial bouquets so perplexing, even downright disrespectful. After all, her legacy is synonymous with the games. In fact, in ancient games, a gift of her leaves was the medal. I don’t know about you, but blatantly going against a sun god’s wishes seems like risky business to me. 

For these reasons and more, might I suggest planting a bay laurel tree in your own victory garden. Make her the center piece. She belongs there. 

In our zone (8a), Laurus nobilis is a cold hardy (just barely), lustrous, evergreen shrub that will grow into a small tree over many years. Although she’ll tolerate part shade, she prefers full sun. I suppose she has a thing for Apollo, after all!

Besides dripping with ancient mythology and good looks, she’s a winner in the kitchen, too. Far superior to dried, old, store-bought bay leaves, fresh leaves may be used just the same in your family recipes. And never mind her standard role in classic savory dishes, like stews, roasts and sauces, I find her strongest game is played in the dessert arena. You heard me right. Think milky sweets, like bay flan, rice pudding or ice cream. Or simmer a leaf with figs, honey and lemon zest. Her uses are as endless as Olympic Game commercial breaks, yet far more memorable. 

I hereby declare Bay Laurel a champion herb in this year’s, and every year’s, Garden Games! 

Now, with what do I crown a champion who crowns champions?

Rebecca McCarthy August 05, 2012 at 12:22 PM
Toni, I think we should return to the tradition of laurel wreaths. Wouldn't that be cool?
Toni Senory August 05, 2012 at 01:27 PM
Absolutely! However, I'd actually be satisfied if it were a prominent part of this year's victory bouquet. It's nowhere! Up until 2008, it's featured in every game. (Here's a bit about this year's bouquet. Unfortunately, the famous designer, Jane Packer, who is responsible for its look, died last November. http://www.treehugger.com/lawn-garden/olympic-victory-bouquet-grown-britain.html )
gary grossman August 05, 2012 at 01:53 PM
I've heard that the leaves of red bay make a good substitute (and a native one) for bay leaves. Any thoughts on that? And where could one buy a red bay seedling locally?
Toni Senory August 05, 2012 at 02:23 PM
Gary, you're right! Red bay (Persea borbonia) is an excellent, native substitute. ( http://www.southeastgarden.com/persea.html ) However, I hardly ever see it. I understand it's under threat from ambrosia beetles and the associated diseases that comes with that. I'll check with The Georgia State Botanical Garden to ask their take and to see if they sell seedlings at their native plant sales. I'll report back here. Thanks for mentioning!


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