There can be no doubt that the bay laurel is an indigenous tree. Fossilised imprints of its leaves have been found in Pleistocene deposits, that is, rock formations from the Ice Age period. They formed thousands of years before the first humans arrived in the Maltese islands and so they could not have been brought over by humans.
The bay laurel is an evergreen tree with dark green leaves and light yellow flowers. It flowers from February to April and although it is already mid-March do not be surprised if you find trees that are not yet in bloom. The persistent wintery weather seems to be causing trees and plants to flower later than usual.
In Maltese the bay laurel is known as sigra tar-rand. It is found in maquis habitat but very few wild specimens are left in nature. A good number have been planted in gardens and public areas but more should be planted. It is much better to have an indigenous tree than an alien species growing in the countryside.
Indigenous trees are well adapted for local conditions and provide food and shelter for indigenous fauna thus helping to maintain a rich biodiversity. Alien species take up space that would be much better utilised by native trees. They do not provide a habitat for many species of animals and so can be called a faunistic desert.
Moreover indigenous species often have a rich cultural legacy which is a result of centuries of interaction between humans and nature.
The bay laurel is used in medicine and cooking and is a well-known symbol. The leaves are used to flavour Mediterranean soups and stews. In Malta it is an important ingredient of rabbit sauce.
In Classical times the Greeks used laurel wreaths to symbolise victory and to bestow a high status on the person wearing it.
Bay laurel is also used medicinally. An essential oil produced from it is used in massage therapy to alleviate arthritic and rheumatic pain. Laboratory studies have shown that high concentrations of a chemical extract can inhibit skin cancer cells from proliferating.
This article was publshed in the Times of Malta on 19 March 2015.