Noble Seed

Much of what is fun to know about the Laurel tree (Laurus noblis) is explained beautifully by John Claudius Loudon, in volume III of his multi-volume Arboretum Et Fruticetum Britannicum (published in 1838). Here are some extracts: “in the reign of Elizabeth, the floors of the houses of distinguished persons were strewed with bay leaves. It was formerly considered medicinal, both leaves and berries being highly aromatic”

“In mythology this tree is celebrated as having once been Daphne, the daughter of Peneus, who, flying from the embraces of Apollo, and reaching the banks of her parent stream, called on the river god for aid, and was changed into a laurel. In the age of Roman greatness, this tree was considered as the emblem of victory, and also of clemency. The victorious generals were crowned with it in their triumphal processions; every common soldier carried a sprig of it in his hand;”

A hamadryad (tree nymph) of terra-cotta sports a crest of laurel and oak in the Huntington Gallery.

“Theophrastus tells us that superstitious Greeks would keep a bay leaf in their mouths all day, to preserve themselves from misfortunes. The Greeks had also diviners who were called Daphnephagi, because they chewed bay leaves, which they pretended inspired them with the spirit of prophecy. The bay was dedicated to Apollo, and the first temple raised to that god at Delphi was formed of the branches of the tree.”

“It was a custom in the middle ages, to place wreaths of laurel, with the berries…, on the heads of those poets who had particularly distinguished themselves; hence our expression, poet laureate…. Students who have taken their degrees at the universities are called bachelors, from the French bachelier, which is derived from the Latin baccalaureus, a laurel berry. … This tree is mentioned by Chaucer as the crown of the Knights of the Round Table.”

We learn a lot from Loudon’s account, being reminded that many of our word symbols derive from historical associations with Laurel: the unmarried bachelor, the conferred baccalaureate, the esteemed poet laureate…   And we know that by 1838, Laurel was one of the many plants that had lost its medicinal associations, an altered perception reflecting a sea change in European intellectual life between 1789 and 1859.

The industrial revolution was underway. Gottfried Reinhold had introduced the word biology in 1803. Humboldt had established concepts of ecology in 1805. The first amino acid, asparagine, was described in 1806. French scientists had isolated and named chlorophyll in 1817. And in 1833, Robert Brown described the cell nucleus. This was the beginning of the modern world. Laurel was history.

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