Wednesday, March 3

Plant of the Month: California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica)

As spring slowly comes to the Santa Cruz Mountains, a sweeping change takes place throughout the forests. New shoots appear daily on the forest floor, ferns begin unrolling their delicate fiddleheads, and leaf primordia starts to materialize on the deciduous trees. And in the San Lorenzo floodplain, a familiar tree is performing a quiet opus in the rain. The California bay laurel trees are flowering.

California bay laurel can be identified in the field by its smooth bark and simple, alternate evergreen leaves, which are lanceolate (lance-shaped), glossy green, and strongly aromatic. The flowers, which occur in late winter and early spring, are small, yellow and grow in stalked umbels – giving rise to the genus name Umbellularia, which means “little umbel”. A member of the Laurel family (Lauraceae), California bay laurel shares its family with Grecian laurel, mountain laurel, sassafras, cinnamon, and avocado.

A familiar tree to anyone who frequents the forests of California, the bay laurel is unmistakable due the powerful scent of its leaves. When rubbed or crushed, they emit a pungent odor reminiscent of the bay leaf of culinary fame (from Grecian laurel), but typically with a much stronger scent. This odor is due to the oils present in the leaves, which contain up to 40% umbellulone, an aromatic ketone compound.

While the function of the powerful oils in bay laurel are a subject of dispute by modern chemists and botanists, the cultural uses of these leaves because of their oils is lengthy. California bay laurel leaves have been used for centuries by Native Americans to treat headaches and sinus congestion, and also burned as an insect repellant. Early European settlers to the area used bay laurel leaves to treat rheumatism, stomach aches, colds, sore throats, and general malaise.

Also of note is the fruit of the California bay laurel. Maturing in the early fall, the fruit of the tree is an ovoid-shaped drupe consisting of a fleshy outer coating and a hard inner nut. The fleshy outer husk, or mesocarp, is edible when ripe and resembles avocado flesh in texture. The inner nut, similar to an avocado pit, is also edible when roasted and purportedly contains powerful stimulants similar to caffeine – although this information is known only through anecdotal reports.

Occurring from southern Oregon to San Diego County at elevations up to 3,000 feet, California bay laurel can be found in a wide variety of habitats, from moist stream valleys to dry rocky hillsides. Its growth form varies according to the growing location. Large specimens along perennial streams may reach 100 feet in height and have a crown that spans 80 feet or more, while specimens occurring on dryer sites may grow as an understory tree or even appear as a shrub. Bay laurel also sprouts vigorously, with new shoots appearing from failed and fallen trunks as well as cut or damaged stumps.

An unmistakable tree with a rich cultural heritage, the California bay laurel is a familiar member of the forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. To view a mature tree covered with delicate flowers in bloom is a rare treat, often reserved for the upper-canopy dwellers of the forest. And all too soon, the flowers will be gone and the bay laurel will once again regain its anonymity amongst the other woody perennials. Take a walk in the woods and catch it before it goes.

[originally published in Words of the Woods - the newsletter of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park - March 2010]

6 comments:

  1. I love the new article! Where can I find more of your publications? You are truly an engaging writer and inspiring naturalist. Do you do private tours in the Santa Cruz Mountains? ;)

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  2. Dear Anonymous,

    Yes, I gladly do private tours in the Santa Cruz Mountains - but most of them involve slogging through tangles of huckleberry and sword-fern in the pouring rain to find some tiny, seemingly insignificant mushroom or flower. Such misery is usually reserved for friends, but if you are still interested I am for hire on the barter system.

    Cheers,
    Trent

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  3. Trent thanks for the info I have a friend in another state who asked me to send fresh bay laurel leaves and I had no idea where to look. Time for a hike through henry cowell. Great article.

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  4. Hey Lexie, Just remember that California State Parks does not allow collecting - be sure to pick your bay laurel leaves outside the park border. :)

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  5. Great info! I am currently living in San Diego and was wondering if you know of any specific locations where I might find any bay? Thanks again!

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    1. Hi Anonymous,

      Bay laurel is pretty sparsely distributed in your neck of the woods - looks like there are isolated reports from around Mt. Laguna. However, once you travel north of the Los Angeles basin, they become fairly common in wooded areas. Check out CalFlora's interactive distribution map. Cheers!

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