From 65 to 24 million years ago a tropical forest flourished throughout California. Rainfall exceeded 80 inches per year and both temperature and humidity were high. Large broad-leaved evergreen trees dominated a landscape interspersed with conifers. The scene was reminiscent of the jungles of modern Central America. Slowly the climate became drier and cooler and most of the tropical plants retreated to coastal areas or south toward the equator. Eventually nearly all the tropical plants died out. In Northern California we are left with two reminders of those ancient times– the Coast redwood and the bay tree.

Umbellularia californica is a tree with many common names – California-bay, California-laurel, bay- laurel, pepperwood, peppernut and Oregon myrtle. It is a member of the Lauraceae family. The group is characterized by numerous aromatic oil glands in the leaves. Many economically important plants such as camphor, sassafras, cinnamon and avocado are in this tropical plant family. If you carefully slice open a mature bay fruit you will see soft, green flesh surrounding a hard, brown pit. It basically resembles a tiny avocado.

Bay trees now grow in cool wooded canyons and valleys in the Coast ranges and in the foothills of the western Sierra Nevada up to 5,000′. They are found from San Diego to southwestern Oregon. Mostly small trees in the Sierra, they become much larger in coastal canyons. In Oregon, bay trees reach their greatest size. The climate there must closely approximate those ancient conditions. The hard durable lumber of these magnificent trees is sold as Oregon myrtle and fashioned into lampshades, bowls, and other curios. The souvenir sellers claim that this tree grows no where else in the world but Oregon….wrong.

At the base of many bay trees are large shelf fungi. These parasites are very common and attack all hardwood trees in North America. They are called the Artist’s Fungus because scratches made on the white undersurface stain brown and are relatively permanent. Messages can be left to elves, goblins and other genies in the forest. This fungus can eventually kill the tree so you should remove it from your ornamental bays.

Some aphids feed on bay leaves. Their sugar-rich droppings (called honeydew — a most polite word for insect crap) rain down on the leaves below. Any plant or shrub beneath a bay tree is soon coated with small black dots. These spots are a rust; a fungus that grows specifically on aphid honeydew.

Native Americans ate the bay fruit, but not the fleshy “avocado” part; they ate the seed. Uncooked seeds are very acerbic so they roasted them to eliminate the bitterness. Then they either ate the cooked seeds directly or made them into cakes for later use. The Indians placed bay leaves in their nostril or bound them tightly to their heads. The pungent bay oils allegedly cured headaches. My experience is that sniffing these leaves will give you a headache! The leaves could also cure rheumatism, stomach aches, colds and even repel fleas. Rubbing the leaves on the body induces sweating; the natives and pioneers took advantage of this property during steam baths. It was and is a miracle cure for nearly everything. Cheap too.

Most of the bay leaves that we use to flavor soups and sauces come from the European bay, Laurus nobilis. However the upstart California-bay is rapidly supplanting the Old World bay, at least in the West. At the corner market a small jar of 20 “premium” California-bay leaves cost over three bucks. That’s 17 cents a leaf! It is indicative of our detachment from the environment that we feel more comfortable using leaves purchased in a bottle than those picked from the trees growing in our backyard.

We have some magnificent bay trees. With wide arching branches they make the perfect climbing tree and an ideal fantasy site for a Swiss Family Robinson treehouse. They are one of the few plants that flower in the winter, reminding us of the mild tropical climate in which they once dwelled.

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August 6, 2009