California Bay Laurel – Umbellularia californica
Other Names: California Bay, California Laurel, Myrtlewood, Oregon Myrtle, Pepperwood, Cinnamon Bush, Peppernut Tree, Headache Tree (Kashaya Pomo), antcing (Cahto), sō ē' bä (Concow Maidu), pahiip (Karuk), behemɂ (Kashaya Pomo), bok (Nomlaki), bā hem' (Pomo), takape kakaaka (Tongva), cuse/chu'shey (Wappo), pōl' cum ōl (Yuki), wohkelo' (Yurok), bahsa (Southern Pomo), sow'-las (Coast Miwok).
Distinctive Characteristics: This evergreen, shade-tolerant tree has a single or multiple trunks with an open, dome-shaped crown. The shiny, dark-green leaves are narrow, long pointed ovals with smooth edges; leaves can reach 4 in. (10 cm) long and 1.2 in. (3 cm) wide. Small yellowish-green flowers are held in an "umbel," a number of short flower stalks, equal in length and spreading from a common point, somewhat like umbrella ribs. The tree's fruit, the bay nut, is a round to olive-shaped green berry about 1 in. (2.5 cm) long; it matures to a purple color with a cap that resembles a golf tee. Under the thin, leathery skin is a bit of green flesh coating a hard, thin-shelled edible pit, in whole resembling a miniature avocado (the trees belong to the same Lauraceae Family).
The tree is similar to its Mediterranean cousin, the culinary Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis), which is smaller in size, with generally narrower leaves containing sweeter oils. All parts of the California Bay Laurel, especially the leaves, contain a distinctively aromatic camphor-like volatile oil that has cooling, irritating, germicidal, and insecticidal qualities. The fragrance is much more aromatic than that of its Mediterranean relative, and it can easily cause headaches that last for days, and can send over-zealously inhaling hikers to the emergency room.
Distribution: Native to the southern tip of Oregon, down the coastal forests throughout the entire length of California, and inland in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada range. Elevation: sea level to 5,000 ft. (1,500 m).
Ecosystem: Found in redwood forests, mixed evergreen forests, oak woodlands, and chaparral in coastal areas with Douglas Fir, Redwood, Madrone, Valley Oak, Black Cottonwood, California Sycamore, Big Leaf Maple, Boxelder, Interior Live Oak, Coast Live Oak, Canyon Live Oak, Blue Oak, California Scrub Oak, California Buckeye, and manzanita. Also found in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range with Grand Fir, White Fir, Coulter Pine, Sugar Pine, and Western White Pine.
Maximum Age: Approximately 500 years.
Maximum Height and Girth: 108 ft. (33 m) in height; 31 ft. (9.4 m) in circumference.
Animal Community: California Bay Laurel provides nesting and cover for game and songbirds, and hiding for deer, wild pig, black bear, and various small mammals. It is browsed by black-tailed deer and livestock. Squirrels and Stellar's jays eat the fruit.
Traditional Uses: California Bay Laurel has long been valued for its many edible, medicinal, insecticidal, and ceremonial uses throughout its range by native cultures including the Cahuilla, Chumash, Pomo, Kashaya Pomo, Miwok, Yujki, Coos, Concow, Maidu, Costanoan, Yukok, Tongva, Tolowa, Ohlone, Karuk, Karok, Mendocino Indians, and Salinan people.
Medicinal: Crushed fresh leaves were inhaled as pain relief for headaches and nasal congestion, though the volatile oils in the leaves may also cause headaches (Cahuilla, Coast Miwok). A poultice was also applied to the head for headaches (Miwok, Yuki, Mendocino Indian). Fresh leaves were placed in water and boiled to make aromatic steam to treat colds and sinus infections (Karok). The light-green tips of new growth were used as a poultice to treat toothache (Lake Miwok). A leaf poultice was used for shingles. A tea was used for sore throats and colds. Leaf oil was used to treat earaches and sores and to prevent allergies in the spring; it was also used to relieve colitis and ulcers. Women used an infusion of the plant for pain after childbirth (Karok). A decoction of the plant was used as a wash for head lice (Mendocino Indian). An infusion of leaves was used as a bath (Mendocino Indian) and a poultice was applied for rheumatism (Pomo, Kashaya Pomo). The leaves were taken as a decoction or poultice for stomachaches (Mendocino Indian, Coast Miwok). Kashaya Pomo doctors would sometimes hit a patient with little branches while singing as a treatment for pain, headache, or colds. A decoction of the leaves was used for menstrual cramps (Kashaya Pomo). A poultice made from flowers was used to reduce swelling. The burning leaf smoke and vapor was used to treat many diseases and to fumigate the house after sicknesses. Leaves were made into an infusion for cramps from diarrhea, food poisoning, or gastroenteritis; a diluted tincture or strong tea can be used as an antimicrobial or antifungal on skin; and a bath may be taken with the leaves for arthritis and joint pain. A repellant tea was made of the root bark, and smoke from burning leaves was used to keep insects out of acorn granaries and houses. Feather-work and baskets were stored with leaves to repel insects. Used also as a flea repellent (Costanoan, Kashaya Pomo, Mendocino Indians).
Food: Both the fruity flesh under the skin and the nut itself are edible. The fruit is palatable raw for only a brief time when ripe; if too ripe, the flesh quickly becomes bruised, like an overripe avocado, and the volatile aromatic oils are so strong that the fruit is inedible. The shelled nuts, which look like the pit of an avocado, are roasted (to remove pungency) in hot ashes and eaten whole, or pounded and sun-dried to make flat cakes that can be eaten right away or stored for winter's use. Roasted nuts or cakes are eaten with greens, buckeye meal, acorn meal, mush, or seaweed. They were also ground into a powder and roasted to make a beverage with the taste of unsweetened coffee or burnt cocoa. While the leaf can be used in cooking, it is spicier and stronger than the Mediterranean seasoning and used in smaller quantity.
Tools and Objects: The wood was used to make bows (Western Mono).
Art and Ceremony: The plant was used in many ceremonies. Leaves and branchlets were used for ceremonial purification, and branches were fashioned into drumsticks. Children threw leaves into fires to hear them crack like firecrackers (Karok). The foliage was placed on a fire during the Brush Dance to drive away evil spirits (Karok). Leaves were rubbed on the body before hunting, to hide human odor (Kashya Pomo). Small, leafy branches were hung in houses to ward off harm or were burned to dispel bad luck in the home (Kashaya Pomo, Yurok). The smoke was waved over people as they left the home. The wood was used to make split-wood clapper instruments for dance circles (Costanoan).
Modern Uses: "Myrtlewood," as it is marketed in Oregon, is sought after by woodworkers around the world. It is considered an excellent tonewood (used to construct the back and sides of acoustic guitars and violins). The beautiful wood is also used for cabinets, furniture, paneling, and veneer. Burls are used for making turned bowls, spoons, and other small tourist items.
Threats and Conservation: California Bay Laurel is one of the main foliar hosts of the pathogen Phytophthora ramorum, which causes sudden oak death, and it is also affected by a less severe disease known as ramorum dieback. Although the tree is not threatened, its population may decline due to removals to prevent the continued spread of the disease.