What is Boldo?

If the Andes were a bit more accessible, we would all be using the leaves of the Boldea fragrans tree in our kitchen. Considering how popular bay leaves are in global cuisine, the rich, savory taste of boldo, also called boldina could easily impress chefs the world over in similar fashion. Boldo is a native to the coastal region of Chile.

Its leaves, which have a strong woody aroma, are used for culinary purposes, primarily in Latin America. The leaves are used in a similar manner to bay leaves. The leaves are also used as an herbal tea, primarily in Chile and Argentina but also in other Spanish-speaking nations, and Brazil.

They are used as a form of herbal medicine, particularly to support the gallbladder, but also to calm upset stomachs. In Brazil, many families keep a Boldo plant at home for this purpose, although Boldo teabags are readily available in nearly all supermarkets.

In the southern half of Brazil, you can find a boldo bush growing in the back yard of just about any rural or suburban home. It’s a hearty plant that is easy to grow and cultivate. The tree is native to the highlands of Chile and Argentina, but test plantings in other regions show promise for this relative newcomer to the spice world. Most notably, Mediterranean regions have begun to plant the leaf with success, and already African cuisines have begun to call for it as a potent substitute for bay.

Boldo is a slow-growing, shrubby evergreen tree that grows 6-8 m in height and produces small, berrylike fruit. The plant’s scented flowers are either male or female, and only one sex is found on any one plant; as such, male and female plants must be grown together for the plants to reproduce. Boldo is found in the Andean regions of Chile and Peru, and also is indigenous to parts of Morocco. It is cultivated in Italy, Brazil, and North Africa to meet the demand for its medicinal leaves in European and Canadian markets where it is widely used.

The leaves of boldina are larger than bay, sometimes approaching double the width, slightly irregular in shape, and thicker than its laurel cousins. In its native Chile, the tiny fruits of the tree are harvested and dried to use as a pepperlike spice, but the more pleasing complexity of taste comes through in the leaves. As potent as the California laurel in aroma, boldina leaves have a similar camphor character with leanings toward more cinnamon sweetness and peppery heat. Fresh on the tree, they can give off a very mild petroleum scent, but this, fortunately, disappears with cooking or drying, and in the freshest batches a mild mint aroma comes to the surface.

Cooking with Boldo

In its native Chile, the tiny fruits of the tree are harvested and dried to use as a pepperlike spice, but the more pleasing complexity of taste comes through in the leaves. Cooks will appreciate the ability of the leaves to flavor meats, such as lamb, as a wrap for slow-roasting, or in accompanying sauces.

Boldo leaves are a good substitute for Indian bay leaves, which are necessary for Northern Indian kormas and form an ingredient for the spice mixture garam masala. Since boldo leaves are rather strong, amounts should be slightly reduced. In Western cuisine, boldo leaves may be used similarly to bay leaves.. Boldo leaves are best suited for fish; furthermore, they may enrich tasty sauces and gravies. Similar to savory, they are well suited for mushrooms. Another application is pickled vegetables.

Health Benefits of Boldo

Shepherds in the Andes mountains noticed that their goats were not suffering from liver or intestinal problems since they had been dieting on boldo leaves. So they decided to check into it and discovered that the plant has numerous medicinal properties. Later, researchers from the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Turkey and European countries came to the same conclusions about the plant. It has been found to have antiseptic, diuretic, anesthetic, antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral qualities.

It also aids digestion and stomach disorders, regulates uric acid, eliminates intestinal gas, reduces blood sugar levels and ensures a healthy menstruation (it has abortive qualities and should not be used during pregnancy). Well known as the hangover herb, it is used by many in South America after a long night out (can you say Carnival?). It acts directly on the liver and stomach, alleviating the most distasteful symptoms of alcohol. Taken daily, it substantially improves the complexion and removes any “tired” aspect in the face.

The best way to take boldo is to crush a few freshly-picked leaves in a few ounces of spring water with a pestle, then strain and drink. It’s most bitter and most effective this way. But finding fresh boldo leaves may be challenging outside of South America. Look for herbal extracts and dried leaves or tea bags as an alternative. And if you ever visit Brazil for Carnival, be sure to have a few leaves on hand and use them before you go to sleep. In Chile, records report the use of Boldo as an anthelmintic (eliminates intestinal parasites). In Peru, the leaves are mainly used by Indigenous tribes to maintain liver health, to eliminate stones, and to support good digestion. In Europe, especially in Greece and Italy, Boldo is used as a digestive aid to stimulate liver and digestive functions.

It is also used to stimulate a sluggish liver and eliminate gall bladder stones. In various parts of the world Boldo has traditionally been used for head colds, earaches, hepatitis, liver congestion, constipation, flatulence, dizziness, stomach and intestinal cramps and a lack of appetite.

The essential oil of boldo leaves (2%) is characterized by its content of ascaridol, a monoterpene peroxide with monocyclic carbon skeleton (40%); other terpene derivatives found in the essential oil include p-cymene, 1,8-cineol and linalool. Ascaridol smells somewhat disagreeable and is, therefore, only rarely found in plants used as spices (for another example, see epazote). Furthermore, the leaves contain several different alkaloids of isoquinoline type, of which boldine (0.1%) before isocorydine and N-methyl laurotetanine is the most important.

Other Names

English: Boldina, Baldina
French: Boldo
German: Boldoblätter

Scientific Name

Boldea fragrans Fam: Monimiaceae

Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen / Public domain