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Bay Leaves

Persea boronia in the Low Country of South Carolina

Persea borbonia (red bay)

Family: Lauraceae

Habitat: Dunes, maritime forests, dry sandy soils on barrier islands.  

Range: Eastern North Carolina south to Florida and west to Southeast Texas.

The first time I stumbled upon a red bay tree in the Low Country of South Carolina, I harvested a handful of leaves for my family for Christmas.  After a day in the field, I always have several bay leaves hanging from my purse or sitting in my car.   There is nothing better than harvesting an herb from the wild that people identify with and commonly buy from the grocery store. It is a learning lesson, a great teaching opportunity to educate the public about what commonly grows around them. 

The most popular use of bay leaves is for seasoning soups, stews, and gumbo.  However, bay leaves have far greater uses than as a soup seasoning.  Red bay’s local abundance along the Coast of the Carolinas combined with it’s easy identification and array of reported uses make this species a must to become familiar with.  The young bay leaves were often used as a tea by the Seminole tribe.  In fact, the red bay tree is the most important plant to the Seminole Indians.  It was a panacea herb, used for “bear sickness”-fever, headache, constipation, and blocked urination; “bird sickness” -diarrhea, vomiting, appetite loss; and “buzzard sickness”-vomiting in children.  Further, the wood was used to make ladles.  Lastly, the leaves were burned as a psychological aid to remove impurities and negative energy.  

Since reading about the many uses of this plant by the Seminole Indians, I have experimented with it’s medicine.  I combine the leaves with lemon grass, turmeric, and ginger, and make a healing tea that tastes delicious.  They leaves when lit make noise, they fizzle. If you are a fan of burning sage or smudging to purify your body or space, you will enjoy burning bay leaves.  I have dried and burned the leaves and they have a pleasant smell.  

The red bay trees have been impacted by laurel wilt, a vascular disease transmitted by the invasive red bay Ambrosia beetle.  We need to keep an eye on red bay trees to find the ones that show resistance to the laurel wilt.  Bay trees are definitely an important economic tree that we, here in the South, should create a market for.  

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