Laurel, a name applied to a number of trees and shrubs, which in many cases are not related to one another. It should be restricted to the genus laurus or true laurel, which is the type of the lauracece or laurel family. This family includes a large number of mostly aromatic trees and shrubs, with alternate, dotted, simple leaves, and perfect or polygamous, apetalous flowers; the anthers have two or four cells, which open from below upward by small valves; the fruit is a one-seeded drupe or berry. The lauracece are especially natives of tropical regions, but several are found in North America. The genus laurus formerly included several hundred species, among them the trees producing cinnamon and camphor, as well as our native sassafras and spice bush; but later botanists have placed these and others in other genera of the same family, leaving only two species to represent the old genus. The true or noble laurel, L. nobilis, is a native of the south of Europe, where it sometimes grows as high as 60 ft., still retaining a shrub-like character by throwing up stems from the base; it is a handsome evergreen, the dark shining leaves of which are wavy on the margin and pleasantly aromatic; the black berries, of the size of small cherries, are also aromatic.
The tree is much cultivated in Europe, and is hardy in favorable situations in England and in the southern United States. Several garden varieties are known which differ from the type in the form and color of their leaves. The tree is also called the bay, from the French bale, derived from the Latin bacca; the term bay was formerly applied to berries generally, but is now restricted to those of the laurel. The custom of crowning successful poets with leaves of this tree gives origin to our expression poet laureate; wreaths of the laurel with the berries (baccce) on were formerly placed upon the heads of students who took their degrees, and were hence known as baccalaureates, a name still retained in the universities, and from which, through the French bachelier, our word bachelor is derived. In the days of Roman greatness the laurel was considered an emblem of victory and likewise of clemency, crowning the victor, and being borne in the hands of the returning soldiery. It is honorably mentioned by Chaucer as the crown of the knights of the round table. The laurel is of little use except as a decorative plant. The leaves and berries were formerly used in medicine as stimulants; in large quantities they are emetic.
A solid oil is obtained from the berries by heat and pressure; it has the consistence of butter, a greenish color, and the odor of the berries; it is still found in commerce as the oil of bays, and has a limited use in veterinary medicine. The leaves, under the name of bay leaves, are used in cookery for flavoring; the better qualities of figs always come packed with a few bay leaves placed at the top of each box, to repel an insect which is very destructive to the fruit. The only other species, the Canary laurel (Z. Canariensis), has much larger leaves, but, being a sub-tropical plant, is rarely seen in cultivation. - The Portugal laurel of the European gardens is prunus (cerasus) Lusitanica, an evergreen species of cherry, similar in properties to the related cherry laurel. (See Cherry Laurel.) The Carolina laurel cherry is prunus Caroliniana, another evergreen species related to the cherry laurel, and like that having poisonous properties; its leaves, especially after wilting in the sun, destroy cattle.
The Carolina laurel of the English gardens is known with us as the Carolina red bay; it was formerly laurus Carolinensis, but is now placed in the genus Persea. California or mountain laurel (oreodaphne Californica) is a fine tree, sometimes 70 or 100 ft., but usually much smaller; its leaves are pleasantly aromatic, and sometimes used as a spice; its dark-colored, handsomely veined wood is valued for cabinet work. - Among the plants popularly called laurel, but which do not belong to the laurel family, are magnolia grandiflora, called big laurel and laurel magnolia; rhododendron maximum, the great laurel; epigcea repens, the ground laurel or trailing arbutus (see Arbutus); and the kalmias (see Kalmia).
Laurel (Laurus nobilis).
Laurel, a S. E. county of Kentucky, drained by Rockcastle river and Laurel creek; area, 288 sq. m.; pop. in 1870, 6,016, of whom 144 were colored. The surface is undulating or hilly, and thickly timbered, and the soil is fertile. The Knoxville branch of the Louisville and Nashville railroad traverses the county. The chief productions in 1870 were 14,146 bushels of wheat, 136,259 of Indian corn, 45,-043 of oats, 11,597 of potatoes, 13,600 lbs. of wool, 17,784 of tobacco, and 46,394 of butter. There were 1,351 horses, 1,537 milch cows, 2,526 other cattle, 7,617 sheep, and 7,625 swine. Capital, Loudon.