The Laurel Family's primitive flowers have no petals but have six sepals that are sometimes petal-like. The stamens, which occur in three or four whorls of three each, are a curiosity because the anthers open by flaps that lift up. The ovary is superior. Most of the approximately 1,000 species in this family are tropical evergreen shrubs and trees, many with aromatic leaves. The family received its name from the famous laurel cultivated for centuries in Europe. Its foliage was used by the ancient Greeks to crown victors in athletic events and later was used in the conferring of academic honors.
Several important spices come from members of this family. Powdered cinnamon is the pulverized bark of a small tree native to India and Sri Lanka, although it is also grown commercially elsewhere. Cassia is very similar and is often sold interchangeably with cinnamon. Cinnamon oil is distilled from young leaves of the trees. Use of cinnamon and cassia dates back thousands of years. They were used in perfumes and anointing oils at the time of Moses, and other records reveal their use in Egypt at least 3,500 years ago.
Camphor has been used since ancient times. This evergreen tree, native to China, Japan, and Taiwan, is the main source of camphor essence still used in cold remedies and inhalants, insecticides, and perfumes. The essence is distilled from wood chips. Camphor trees are smog resistant, and some American cities and towns with milder climates have been using them as street trees.
Sassafras trees, native to the eastern United States and eastern Asia, also have spicy-aromatic wood. A flavoring widely used in toothpaste, chewing gum, mouthwashes, and soft drinks was obtained by distillation of wood chips and bark. Sassafras tea still is considered a refreshing beverage. Sassafras is also an ingredient of some homemade root beers, and in the southern states, an alcoholic beer has been made by adding molasses to boiled sassafras shoots and allowing the mixture to ferment. In Louisiana, powdered sassafras leaves (called filé) have been used as a thickening and flavoring agent for gumbo. In the past, it has been used by country physicians for treating hypertension and for inducing a sweat in those with respiratory infections. Reports indicate that in large doses, it has a narcotic-stimulant effect, and it is also reported to be carcinogenic. Most sassafras flavorings now in use are artificial.
The sweet bay, used as a flavoring agent in gravies, sauces, soups, and meat dishes, comes from the leaves of the laurel. Leaves of the related California bay (Fig. 24.4) are sometimes used as a substitute for sweet bay and for making Christmas wreaths. This tree, which is native to California, also occurs in southwestern Oregon, where it is known as myrtle (true myrtles, however, belong to a different family).
California bay wood is hard and can be polished to a high luster; it is used for making a variety of bowls, ornaments, and other smaller wooden articles.
Early settlers in the West and Native Americans of the region used California bay for the relief of rheumatism by bathing in hot water to which a quantity of leaves had been added. The nutlike fruits (drupes) were roasted and used for winter food. A leaf was placed under a hat on the head to "cure" a headache (but even a small piece of leaf placed near the nostrils can produce an almost instant headache!). A few leaves placed on top of flour or grains in a canister will keep weevils away, and small branches have been used as chicken roosts to repel bird lice and fleas. A leaf or two rubbed on exposed skin functions as a mosquito repellent.
Avocados are also members of the Laurel Family. The fruits have more energy value by weight than red meats and are rich in vitamins and iron.
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