Can you tell that I am going a little bit stir crazy? Covid and Italy are a not good mix. It’s been over a year and things are better, but not great yet.
I can’t leave Florence because we are in the Orange Zone still (it’s about to get worse, all of Italy will be in the Red Zone over the weekend of Easter. Won’t be able to leave the house). Spending long days in Florence doesn’t seem bad, does it? If the museums, churches, libraries, and schools were open, it would be fine. But, they aren’t. So, filling the long days, during the sunny days of spring, has become a bit of a challenge.
Yesterday I was on a new walk in a part of Florence I had only ever seen previously from cars and busses. As usual, I was delighted with the plant life I saw.
For example, see this beautiful shrub with the yellow blooms?
Here’s what I thought to myself: “what is that, I’ve never noticed those particular blooms before?” The shrub itself, which I have now seen at least a million times in my life, was transformed by yellow flowery things and I felt like I’d never seen it before.
I dusted off my handy plant identifying app (PlantNet) and looked it up:
So, it is the laurus nobilis, or noble laurel shrub. Wow, this is fun, I thought! Bay laurel never looked so good before!
When I got home and had time to look up the laurel, I was fascinated to consider details I would, pre-Covid, probably never have taken the time to think about. Here’s what Wikipedia added:
“Laurus nobilis is an aromatic evergreen tree or large shrub with green, glabrous smooth leaves, in the flowering plant family Lauraceae. It is native to the Mediterranean region and is used as bay leaf for seasoning in cooking. Its common names include bay tree, bay laurel, sweet bay, true laurel, Grecian laurel, or simply laurel. Laurus nobilis figures prominently in classical Greco-Roman culture.
“The laurel is an evergreen shrub or small tree, variable in size and sometimes reaching 23–59 ft tall. The genus Laurus includes four accepted species, whose diagnostic key characters often overlap.
“The bay laurel is dioecious (unisexual), with male and female flowers on separate plants. Each flower is pale yellow-green, about 3⁄8 in diameter, and they are borne in pairs beside a leaf. The leaves are glabrous, 2–5 in long and 3⁄4–1 5⁄8 in broad, with an entire untoothed margin. On some leaves the margin undulates. The fruit is a small, shiny black berry-like drupe about 3⁄8 in long that contains one seed.
“Laurus nobilis is a widespread relic of the laurel forests that originally covered much of the Mediterranean Basin when the climate of the region was more humid. With the drying of the Mediterranean during the Pliocene era, the laurel forests gradually retreated, and were replaced by the more drought-tolerant sclerophyll plant communities familiar today. Most of the last remaining laurel forests around the Mediterranean are believed to have disappeared approximately ten thousand years ago, although some remnants still persist in the mountains of southern Turkey, northern Syria, southern Spain, north-central Portugal, northern Morocco, the Canary Islands and in Madeira.
The plant is the source of several popular herbs and one spice used in a wide variety of recipes, particularly among Mediterranean cuisines. Most commonly, the aromatic leaves are added whole to Italian pasta sauces. They are typically removed from dishes before serving, unless used as a simple garnish. Whole bay leaves have a long shelf life of about one year, under normal temperature and humidity. Whole bay leaves are used almost exclusively as flavor agents during the food preparation stage.
Ground bay leaves, however, can be ingested safely and are often used in soups and stocks, as well as being a common addition to a Bloody Mary. Dried laurel berries and pressed leaf oil can both be used as robust spices, and the wood can be burnt for strong smoke flavoring.
The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder listed a variety of conditions which laurel oil was supposed to treat: paralysis, spasms, sciatica, bruises, headaches, catarrhs, ear infections, and rheumatism.
Lauris Nobilis in symbolism:
In ancient Greece, the plant was called daphne, after the mythic mountain nymph of the same name. 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 pled for help to Gaia, who transported her to Crete. In Daphne’s place Gaia left a laurel tree, from which Apollo fashioned wreaths to console himself.17 Other versions of the myth, including that of the Roman poet Ovid, state that Daphne was transformed directly into a laurel tree.
“Bay laurel was used to fashion the laurel wreath of ancient Greece, a symbol of highest status. A wreath of bay laurels was given as the prize at the Pythian Games because the games were in honor of Apollo, and the laurel was one of his symbols. According to the poet Lucian, the priestess of Apollo known as the Pythia reputedly chewed laurel leaves from a sacred tree growing inside the temple to induce the enthusiasmos (trance) from which she uttered the oracular prophecies for which she was famous. Some accounts starting in the fourth century BC describe her as shaking a laurel branch while delivering her prophecies. Those who received promising omens from the Pythia were crowned with laurel wreaths as a symbol of Apollo’s favor.
“The symbolism carried over to Roman culture, which held the laurel as a symbol of victory. It was also associated with immortality, with ritual purification, prosperity and health. It is also the source of the words baccalaureate and poet laureate, as well as the expressions “assume the laurel” and “resting on one’s laurels”. [And I would add, parenthetically, that the name Lorenzo, as in Lorenzo il Magnifico, is based upon the laurel plant. So is the name Lauretta.]
“Pliny the Elder stated that the Laurel was not permitted for “profane” uses – lighting it on fire at altars “for the propitiation of divinities” was strictly forbidden, because “…it is very evident that the laurel protests against such usage by crackling as it does in the fire, thus, in a manner, giving expression to its abhorrence of such treatment.”
“Laurel was closely associated with the Roman Emperors, beginning with Augustus. Two Laurel trees flanked the entrance to Augustus’ house on the Palatine Hill in Rome, which itself was connected to the Temple of Apollo Palatinus which Augustus had built. Thus the laurels had the dual purpose of advertising Augustus’ victory in the Civil Wars and his close association with Apollo. Suetonius relates the story of Augustus’ wife, and Rome’s first Empress, Livia, who planted a sprig of laurel on the grounds of her villa at Prima Porta after an eagle dropped a hen with the sprig clutched in its beak onto her lap. The sprig grew into a full-size tree which fostered an entire grove of laurel trees, which were in turn added to by subsequent Emperors when they celebrated a triumph. The Emperors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty all sourced their Laurel wreaths from the original tree planted by Livia. It was taken as an omen of the impending end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that in the reign of Nero the entire grove died, shortly before he was assassinated. Rome’s second Emperor Tiberius wore wreaths of laurel whenever there was stormy weather because it was widely believed that Laurel trees were immune to lightning strikes, affording protection to those who brandished it. One reason for this belief is because laurel does not burn easily and crackles loudly when on fire. It led ancient Romans to believe the plant was inhabited by a “heavenly fire demon”, and was therefore “immune” from outer threats like fire or lightning.
In modern Italy laurel wreaths are worn as a crown by graduating high school students.