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.
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]