The Lauraceae Family

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Cinnamon Laden Funeral Pyres

Cinnamomum verum & Cinnamomum cassia

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A Phoenix, close to death, will make its nest out of cinnamon and myrrh. Spent, it burns itself up, and from its ashes a new Phoenix is born. In Rome, many a coin bought a funeral pyre laden with cinnamon. And, none so more than the emperor Nero at the funeral of his wife Poppeea.

Those who are likely to be the best
acquainted with the matter, assert that this country does not
produce, in a whole year, so large a quantity of perfumes as
was burnt by the Emperor Nero at the funeral obsequies of
his wife Poppeea
— The Natural History of Pliny

Rome was a heavy consumer of spices from the Mediterranean, Arabia, and Asia. The further the spices came, the richer the stories and legends around its origins. Rome, in its obsession, used spices in food and drink, to perfume homes and those that lived in them, and as an offering to the gods.

...and which prompts him to burn with the dead
what was originally understood to have been produced for the
service of the gods
— The Natural History of Pliny

Why include such rich perfumes in a funeral pyre? Aside from the smoke reaching the gods and paying respect to the dead, there was the added benefit of masking the smell of burning human flesh.

 

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The nymph who became a tree

Laurus nobilis

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TheHungryChild_Laurel_01.png

Or, how the god, Apollo, lost his heart to the Peneian nymph, Daphne.

Apollo, in his pride, slighted Cupid one day. He called the God of Love's tools unjust for the cause. Saying, Cupid was unworthy to carry a bow, as he used it to entice lust and love, instead of battle. 

Oh, Apollo, although your bow may pierce all things, my bow [will pierce] you; and by as much as all animals yield to a god, by so much is your glory less than mine
— Ovid, Metamorphoses

Slighted, Cupid flew up to mount Parnasus, and in anger and revenge, he released two arrows, one for Daphne, and one for Apollo, one the opposite of the other. A golden arrow for Apollo and a blunt arrow, with lead under the shaft, for the nymph, Daphne. One to love, and one to repel. Apollo, overwhelmed, pursues Daphne. Chasing, until he finally catches up with her. In desperation, she calls out to her father, and asks for her form to be changed. Her legs become sluggish, as they root down, her arms turn to branches, her hair to leaves, and her body, a trunk. Even then, Apollo still smothered the changed Daphne with kisses and in her tree form she still shrunk away from him. In his love for her, he voiced, that if she wouldn't be his bride, she would be his tree. Her leaves, evergreen were a symbol of victory.

Laurel was fashioned in to wreaths and crowns to reward victors, heroes, and poets. To this day, we still use, not the wreath, but the term, to reward those who excel in their fields. Think of, a Nobel Laureate or Poet Laureate. A long lived symbol that has ingrained itself in our language.

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The Clueless Avocado

Persea americana

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Fruit looks colourful and tasty because it wants to be eaten. Fallen to the ground the seeds of a plant, bush, or tree can only get so far. But, to be eaten and pooped out, a distance away, is to have your genes passed on. Now, take a minute to take in the size of an avocado, what kind of creature has a digestive system large enough to pass a seed that size and not be in agony over it. An elephant, maybe. Unfortunately, elephants and the wild avocado tree, native to Central- and South-Amerika, don't exactly occupy the same stretch of land.

In the early eighties, evolutionary biologists Daniel H. Janzen proposed that the avocado might be an example of Evolutionary Anachronism. Which in this case, refers to the avocado evolving through time to share a mutual beneficial relationship with a now extinct mammal or mammals. So, which creature was large enough to reach for the avocados and after munching on the creamy flesh, pass the seed through their digestive system. Two mammals have been suggested, The Giant Ground Sloth (Megatherium) and The Gomphotere. 

The former, a sloth the size of an elephant, the latter, The Gomphotere, a creature akin to an elephant. Both belonged to a group of animals we now call Pleistocene Megafauna, who lived during the Pleistocene epoch—which lasted from 2.58 million years to 11.7 thousand years BP  (before present).

There are prominent members of the lowland forest flora of Costa Rica whose fruit and seed traits can best be explained by viewing them as anachronisms. These traits were molded through evolutionary interactions with the Pleistocene megafauna (and earlier animals) but have not yet extensively responded to its absence
— Daniel H. Janzen

It seems that the avocado tree's reaction to it's missing propagator is somewhat lagging behind. Then again it didn't take long for humans to discover the buttery flesh that lurked beneath the knobbly green-black skin. The avocado tree might have been clueless to the absence of its co-evolved propagator. But, humans sure have picked up the slack by planting and re-planting the tree and coming up with a dozen or so cultivars. Maybe cultivation and domestication isn't all that one-sided after all.

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Family

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What unites these plants, is that they all belong to the same family, mainly, the Lauraceae. The Laurel Family boasts over fifty genera and three-thousand species worldwide. Belonging to the same family means that the plants in them share many botanical similarities, but not necessarily real-estate, they don't even need to be on the same continent to be part of the gang.  Through the advent of DNA research, it has become easier and easier to determine which plants can be huddled together or to the disgruntlement of several gardeners to be shuffled off to another family or be given a brand new one.

Lauraceae are almost exclusively made up out of evergreen plants, with leathery leaves and numerous ethereal or aromatic oil cavities. They mostly produce small flowers in green, white, and yellow, and single-seeded fruit made out up out of fleshy berries or drupes.

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Of Leaves

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Another thing these three have in common is their use in cooking. Aside from the use of cinnamon bark and the creamy flesh of avocado, their leaves share a similar use to bay leaves. In Mexico, dried avocado leaves are added to soups and stews, just the way you would add bay (laurel). They can also be layered over corn husks or parchment paper to cook meat or fish in. Once out of the oven, the leaves can be discarded or left as decoration. Fresh leaves are also used to grill or barbecue meat or fish on. The leaves are a mix between bay and anise seed, taste-wise. On the other side of the world, cinnamon leaves enjoy the same use. With a mild cinnamon taste and a hint of clove. They're added to curries, stews, and soups. Interested in tasting these for yourself? Start scavenging the internet for online sellers or hit up local spice vendors.

Here in London, Cool Chile sells dried avocado leaves, along with other Mexican goodies. I've also recently discovered Spice Trekkers, a Canadian based spice company, who boast an exceptional range of spices, herbs, and teas, and are committed to high-quality and honest relationships with the people and farmers they buy from. 


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I spend hours and hours each week, researching and studying, but at the end of the day, it's still a learning process. Therefore, If you think I got any of the information wrong, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email with the correct information.



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