LAUREL. At least four shrubs or small trees are called by this name in Great Britain, viz. the common or cherry laurel (Prunus Laurocerasus) , the Portugal laurel (P. lusitanica), the bay or sweet laurel (Laurus nobilis) and the spurge laurel (Daphne Laureola). The first two belong to the rose family (Rosaceae), to the section Cerasus (to which also belongs the cherry) of the genus Prunus.
The common laurel is a native of the woody and sub-alpine regions of the Caucasus, of the mountains of northern Persia, of north-western Asia Minor and of the Crimea. It was received into Europe in 1576, and flowered for the first time in 1583. Ray in 1688 relates that it was first brought from Trebizonde to Constantinople, thence to Italy, France, Germany and England. Parkinson in his Paradisus records it as growing in a garden at Highgate in 1629; and in Johnson's edition of Gerard's Herbal (1633) it is recorded that the plant " is now got into many of our choice English gardens, where it is well respected for the beauty of the leaues and their lasting or continuall greennesse " (see Loudon's Arboretum, ii. 717). The leaves of this plant are rather large, broadly lance-shaped and of a leathery consistence, the margin being somewhat serrated. They are remarkable for their poisonous properties, giving off the odour of bitter almonds when bruised; the vapour thus issuing is sufficient to kill small insects by the prussic acid which it contains. The leaves when cut up finely and distilled yield oil of bitter almonds and hydrocyanic (prussic) acid. Sweetmeats, custards, cream, etc., are often flavoured with laurel-leaf water, as it imparts the same flavour as bitter almonds; but it should be used sparingly, as it is a dangerous poison, having several times proved fatal. The first case occurred in 1731, which induced a careful investigation to be made of its nature; Schrader in 1802 discovered it to contain hydrocyanic acid. The effects of the distilled laurel-leaf water on living vegetables is to destroy them like ordinary prussic acid; while a few drops act on animals as a powerful poison. It was introduced into the British pharmacopoeia in 1839, but is generally superseded by the use of prussic acid. The aqua laurocerasi, or cherry laurel water, is now standardized to contain 0-1% of hydrocyanic acid. It must not be given in doses larger than 2 drachms. It contains benzole hydrate, which is antiseptic, and is therefore suitable for hypodermic injection; but the drug is of inconsistent strength, owing to the volatility of prussic acid.
The following varieties of the common laurel are in cultivation: the Caucasian (Prunus Laurocerasus, var. caucasica), which is hardier and bears very rich dark-green glossy foliage; the Versailles laurel (var. latifolia), which has larger leaves; the Colchican (var. colchica), which is a dwarf -spreading bush with narrow sharply serrated pale-green leaves. There is also the variety rotundifolia with short broad leaves, the Grecian with narrow leaves and the Alexandrian with very small leaves.
The Portugal laurel is a native of Portugal and Madeira. It was introduced into England about the year 1648, when it was cultivated in the Oxford Botanic Gardens. During the first half of the 18th century this plant, the common laurel and the holly were almost the only hardy evergreen shrubs procurable in British nurseries. They are all three tender about Paris, and consequently much less seen in the neighbourhood of that city than in England, where they stand the ordinary winters but not very severe ones. There is a variety (myrlifolia) of compact habit with smaller narrow leaves, also a variegated variety.
The evergreen glossy foliage of the common and Portugal laurels render them well adapted for shrubberies, while the racemes of white flowers are not devoid of beauty. The former often ripens its insipid drupes, but the Portugal rarely does so. It appears to be less able to accommodate itself to the English climate, as the wood does not usually " ripen " so satisfactorily. Hence it is rather more liable to be cut by the frost. It is grown in the open air in the southern United States.
The bay or sweet laurel (Laurus nobilis) belongs to the family Lauraceae, which contains sassafras, benzoin, camphor and other trees remarkable for their aromatic properties. It is a large evergreen shrub, sometimes reaching the height of 60 ft., but rarely assuming a truly tree-like character. The leaves are smaller than those of the preceding laurels, possessing an aromatic and slightly bitter flavour, and are quite devoid of the poisonous properties of the cherry laurel. The small yellowish-green flowers are produced in axillary clusters, are male or female, and consist of a simple 4-leaved perianth which encloses nine stamens in the male, the anthers of which dehisce by valves which lift upwards as in the common barberry, and carry glandular processes at the base of the filament. The fruit consists of a succulent berry surrounded by the persistent base of the perianth. The bay laurel is a native of Italy, Greece and North Africa, and is abundantly grown in the British Isles as an evergreen shrub, as it stands most winters. The date of its introduction is unknown, but must have been previous to 1562, as it is mentioned in Turner's Herbal published in that year. A full description also occurs in Gerard's Herball (1597, p. 1222). It was used for strewing the floors of houses of distinguished persons in the reign of Elizabeth. Several varieties have been cultivated, differing in the character of their foliage, as the undulata or wave-leafed, salicifolia or willow-leafed, the variegated, the broad-leafed and the curled ; there is also the doubleflowered variety. The bay laurel was carried to North America by the early colonists.
This laurel is generally held to be the Daphne of the ancients, though Lindley, following Gerard (Herball, 1597, p. 761), asserted that the Greek Daphne was Ruscus racemosus. Among the Greeks the laurel was sacred to Apollo, especially in connexion with Tempe, in whose laurel groves the god himself obtained purification from the blood of the Python. This legend was dramatically represented at the Pythian festival once in eight years, a boy fleeing from Delphi to Tempe, and after a time being led back with song, crowned and adorned with laurel. Similar da<j)vrj(j)opiai: were known elsewhere in Greece. Apollo, himself purified, was the author of purification and atonement to other penitents, and the laurel was the symbol of this power, which came to be generally associated with his person and sanctuaries. The relation of Apollo to the laurel was expressed in the legend of Daphne (q.v.). The victors in the Pythian games were crowned with the laurels of Apollo, and thus the laurel became the symbol of triumph in Rome as well as in Greece. As Apollo was the god of poets, the Laurea Apollinaris naturally belonged to poetic merit (see LAUREATE). The various prerogatives of the laurel among the ancients are collected by Pliny (Hist. Nat. xv. 30). It was a sign of truce, like the olive branch; letters announcing victory and the arms of the victorious soldiery were garnished with it; it was thought that lightning could not strike it, and the emperor Tiberius always wore a laurel wreath during thunderstorms. From its association with the divine power of purification and protection, it was often set before the door of Greek houses, and among the Romans it was the guardian of the gates of the Caesars (Ovid, Met. i. 562 sq.). The laurel worn by Augustus and his successors had a miraculous history: the laurel grove at the imperial villa by the ninth milestone on the Flaminian way sprang from a shoot sent from heaven to Livia Drusilla (Sueton. Galba, i.). Like the olive, the laurel was forbidden to profane use. It was employed in divination; the crackling of its leaves in the sacred flame was a good omen (Tibull. ii. 5. 81), and their silence unlucky (Propert. ii. 21); and the leaves when chewed excited a prophetic afflatus (8a4>vr]<j>ayoi,, cf. Tibull. ii. 5. 63). There is a poem enumerating the ancient virtues of the laurel by J. Passeratius (1594).
The last of the plants mentioned above under the name of laurel is the so-called spurge laurel (Daphne Laureola). This and one other species (D. Mezereum), the mezereon, are the sole representatives of the family Thymelaeaceae in Great Britain. The spurge laurel is a small evergreen shrub, with alternate somewhat lanceolate leaves with entire margins. The green flowers are produced in early spring, and form drooping clusters at the base of the leaves. The calyx is four-cleft, and carries eight stamens in two circles of four each within the tube. The pistil forms a berry, green at first, but finally black. The mezereon differs in blossoming before the leaves are produced, while the flowers are lilac instead of green. The bark furnishes the drug Cortex Mezerei, for which that of the spurge laurel is often substituted. Both are powerfully acrid, but the latter is less so than the bark of mezereon. It is now only used as an ingredient of the liquor sarsae composilus concentralus. Of other species in cultivation there are D. Fortunei from China, which has lilac flowers; D. pontica, a native of Asia Minor; D. alpina, from the Italian Alps; D. collina, south European; and D, Cneorum, the garland flower or trailing daphne, the handsomest of the hardy species.
See Hemsley's Handbook of Hardy Trees, etc.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)