laurel, common name for the Lauraceae, a family of forest trees and shrubs found mainly in tropical SE Asia but also abundant in tropical America. Most have aromatic bark and foliage and are evergreen; deciduous species are usually those that extend into temperate zones. The plants are important for aromatic oils and spices, edible fruits, and timber (e.g., from species of the largest genus, Ocotea ). The true laurel—that of history and classical literature—is Laurus nobilis, called also bay and sweet bay. It is native to the Mediterranean, where to the ancients it symbolized victory and merit and was sacred to Apollo. The fragrant leaves are sold commercially as bay leaf, a seasoning. Many plants of the unrelated heath family are also called laurels in the United States because of their similarly dark and glossy but poisonous leaves; the cherry laurel is a species of the rose family. A native American laurel is the evergreen California laurel ( Umbellularia californica ), also called pepperwood, bay-tree, and Oregon myrtle. It grows in California and Oregon and provides wood, medicinal leaves, and fruits that were eaten by Native Americans. Lindera benzoin, commonly called spicebush, benzoin, or wild allspice, is another fragrant species found in America; its powdered berries have been used as a substitute for allspice. All other Lindera species are Asian. The red bay ( Persea borbonia ) of the southeast coastal plains has very strong, bright reddish-brown heartwood used in cabinetmaking and interior finishing. P. americana, the alligator pear, or avocado (from Sp. aguacate ), has been cultivated in Mexico and Guatemala for millennia; it is now grown extensively in Florida and California and many parts of the moister tropics and subtropics for its nutritious oil-rich fruit and is used chiefly in salads. Sassafras ( Sassafras albidum ), a tree or shrub, was one of the first American plants to command the attention of European settlers, who exported it to the Old World as a high-priced panacea. Its aromatic bark is still occasionally used for medicinal tea, and its pulverized leaves for soup and condiments. Safrole, used in flavorings and medicinals, is obtained from oil of sassafras as well as from the camphor tree. The camphor tree, the cassia-bark tree, and the cinnamon tree all belong to the Asian genus Cinnamomum and are extensively cultivated for their aromatic bark (see cinnamon and camphor). Many of the evergreen laurels are grown as hedges and, because of their handsome foliage, are used by florists. The laurel family is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Laurales.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.