The intersection of plants used for food and essential oils has always been a potent one. After all, if the plant smells nice and isn’t toxic, why not use it in cooking? One such dual-use plant is the West Indian bay tree (more commonly known as the bay rum tree). Essential oils made from the West Indian bay tree can be used in a variety of situations.
The West Indian Bay Tree
The West Indian bay tree is, as the name implies, the West Indies version of the common bay tree. Its appearance, as the following picture shows, is similar to its North American and Asian relatives:
To understand the uses for the West Indian bay tree in essential oils, learning more about the features of the plant itself is essential. As a Latin American food website explains:
The West Indian bay leaf is highly fragrant and aromatic, much more than its Turkish, Indonesian, Californian or Indian counterparts. The flavor is intense and highly spiced; it is for this reason that in some parts of the Caribbean, the West Indian bay leaf is known simply as, The Spice Tree. The West Indian bay leaf has notes of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg with hints of vanilla and cardamom. [. . . .]
West Indian bay leaves vary in size, they can range from 2 to 5 inches in height and can be as wide as 2 and a half inches. The leaves are thick and shiny. The color ranges from a bright green to bottle green. The darker the leaves, the more mature and robust the flavor of the bay leaf.
The leaves of the bay tree are the most commonly used element, as the following video explains:
Unlike with many other essential oil plants, the West Indian bay tree doesn’t have to be distilled for it to be useful. As the website continues to explain:
In the Caribbean, like other places, bay leaves are used for cooking rice dishes, soups and stews. However, the bay leaf is most prized when cooked in oats porridge or plantain porridge. Bay leaves are made into tea. You can make bay leaf tea, bay leaf and lemon grass tea or bay leaf and cocoa tea [as the image below shows. Check out the video as well to find out how bay trees are grown for use in the kitchen.]
While bay leaves are prized in the West Indian kitchen, it is also used in other parts of the home – as an air freshener and as an insect repellent. Fresh bay leaves are strewn in pantries and cupboards to keep away insects. And, because fresh bay leaves are always available, replenishing this natural air freshener and insect repellent is never a problem.
The Caribbean also has a rich heritage of folk medicine and to this day, you can find older folks recommending a hot cup of bay leaf tea to lower blood pressure, help with digestive problems or to get rid of a headache.
If you have access to bay tree leaves, you can make your own teas as well–here’s a video showing you how:
West Indian Bay Essential Oil
As Mountain Rose Herbs, an essential oil company, explains, the West Indian bay essential oil is typically made from steam distilling the leaves of the West Indian bay tree. The resulting essential oil looks like this:
The spice-filled taste of the bay leaf transfers well to the essential oil, which has a “sweet, spicy, balsamic and medicinal” odor. As such, the essential oil has a number of uses, described below.
Note that while the West Indian bay oil is useful in a number of situations, it cannot be ingested. Mountain Rose Herbs offers the following warning for West Indian oil usage:
Oil Specific: Not for internal use. Avoid while pregnant, and if suffering from kidney or liver conditions.
General: As with all essential oils, never use them undiluted, in eyes or mucous membranes. Do not take internally unless working with a qualified and expert practitioner. Keep away from children. If applying an essential oil to your skin always perform a small patch test to an insensitive part of the body (after you have properly diluted the oil in an appropriate carrier.
Following these warnings as well as any additional information on the label of the essential oil bottle (an example is shown below) is crucial. It’s always better to err on the side of safety when dealing with essential oils.
Usages #1-5: Medical Properties: All-Purpose Pain Reliever, Decongestant, Hair Loss Prevention, Hemorrhage Prevention, Antifungal Liquid
For a long time, West Indian oil was solely prized for its medical uses. Dr. Mercola, on his website, explains:
One of the main benefits of bay oil is its ability to ease pain brought by neuralgia, which is severe pain that occurs due to a damaged nerve. It can also stimulate blood vessel contraction, and relieve pressure on the nerves. This can alleviate pain considerably.
Bay oil can also reduce pain from joint and muscle problems (including sprains and arthritis), and coughs and colds, viral infections, and flu. It also functions as a decongestant and can be used to treat respiratory problems when inhaled.
The prevention of hair loss is another promoted benefit of the oil from the West Indies bay tree. As an astringent, the oil triggers contractions in muscles and tissues. It fortifies the hold of scalp on hair roots, as well as strengthens gums and stops the sagging of skin and muscles. [A shampoo made from West Indian bay oil is shown below.] Hemorrhages can also be prevented when using bay oil, which can cause blood vessels to contract.
Bay oil, along with thyme oil, also showed antifungal activity. In a 2008 study, out of 26 plant species tested, thyme and bay oils were the most effective against Phytophthora cactorum and Cryponectria parasitica.
Further research has demonstrated the antibacterial effects of bay essential oil, along with nine other essential oils – cinnamon, grapefruit, lemongrass, thyme, clary sage, wintergreen, clove, allspice, and camphor. These oils were tested on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and methicillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA). Researchers found that these oils were more efficient in eliminating the bacterial strains than vancomycin, the primary drug used for MRSA and MSSA treatment.
West Indies bay oil, as well as bay laurel oil, exhibited bacteria-fighting properties against other pathogenic species, such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria.
The following video offers additional insight into the health benefits of West Indian oil as well. Do note, however, that the essential oil made from the West Indian bay tree is more potent than anything made from the leaves of the plant alone, which is what the video describes.
Again, bear in mind that West Indian bay tree essential oil must not be ingested. Instead, you should use the essential oil as a form of aromatherapy or apply it topically to get its full healing powers. Dr. Mercola recommends the following example methods and uses while reiterating again that the essential oil “should not be ingested”:
- Improve sleep by mixing 10 drops of bay oil, two to three drops of sweet orange oil, one drop of clove essential oil, and almond oil as a carrier oil.
- Relieve depressive symptoms by blending two drops of bay oil, four drops of black pepper oil, four drops of bergamot oil, and 1 tablespoon of jojoba oil.
- Treat flu symptoms by adding a mixture of two drops of bay oil and four drops of myrtle oil in a diffuser.
- Treat dandruff by adding two drops of bay oil to your shampoo.
Usage #6-10: Cosmetics: Aftershave, Men’s Fragrances, Lotions and Massage Oils, Hair Products, Skin Toner
Because of the unique odor of West Indian bay trees, the essential oil made from the plant is used in many cosmetics. The Essential Oil Company explains:
West Indian Bay Oil has a spicy aroma with balsamic hint to it with a touch of “clove”. The aroma is very masculine. It is extracted using the steam distillation method. Historically, it was used as an insecticide and to keep moths away. Now Bay Oil WI is used medically and cosmetically all over the globe.
[It is] cosmetically used for men’s products such as aftershave, men’s fragrances, lotions, as well as other men’s hair products.
Because it stimulates blood circulation it is used in many massage oils. [It is] commonly used to relieve tension in the muscles when applied topically, it gives the skin a heat sensation.
When applied to the scalp either as a tonic, shampoo, or conditioner it is very healing. [It helps] to treat dandruff and other problems with the skin. It is said to promote hair growth when used on a regular basis, rejuvenating the hair and hair follicles. [. . . .]
Its properties can be used in men’s fragrances, perfumes, aftershave, shampoo, conditioner, hair tonics, massage oils, pain relievers, memory enhancement products.
Dr. Mercola on his website further elucidates the matter and offers a very particular warning about its usage:
Like bay rum, West Indies bay oil is frequently used in cosmetics and perfumery, specifically in men’s personal care products. It also works as a skin toner and can help against razor burns and breakouts on skin. Unlike other plant oils, like rose or geranium oils (which are more “feminine”), its spicy and masculine aroma makes it a good choice for men.
Bay oil is also considered an analgesic in aromatherapy, relieving muscle and joint pain and neuralgia. It may also be used as a massage oil or added to bath water to induce a relaxing effect. It is added to hair products like shampoos and for hair loss treatment. You may also use it to treat dandruff and oily or flaky scalp, and to give your hair a vibrant shine. [. . . .]
The essential oil of bay owes its analgesic properties to three chemical constituents: eugenol, chavicol (estragole), and myrcene. Because of the presence of eugenol, the oil can cause irritations and should be used under the guidance of an aromatherapy practitioner.
You can take advantage of the cosmetic properties of West Indian oil by adding a few drops of it to your favorite aftershave, shampoo, or lotion, but you can also buy ready-made, specially mixed varieties, like the ones shown here:
Mixing your own cosmetic materials could be an interesting experience as well. Here is a video that simplifies the aftershave-making process into a procedure you can easily follow on your own:
The same goes for fragrances and colognes–if you’re interested in custom-made perfumes, you can mix your own using diluted essential oils. To aid with this task, Mountain Rose Herbs, an essential oil company, reinforces the fact that “bay [essential oil] is used in many fragrances for men, including aftershaves and lotions” by offering the following list of scents with which West Indian oil blends well:
- Black pepper
- Ylang ylang
Of course, ready-made colognes containing West Indian Oil exist as well. Fragrantica, an online encyclopedia of perfumes, has compiled a list of fragrances and colognes that contain the specific scent that you can easily access by clicking on the link. Here are some of the scents shown:
West Indian bay essential oil is a very versatile scent that can be used for a variety of medicine and cosmetic purposes. Make sure to try out some of these uses the next time you purchase a bottle!