California Bay Laurel
Scientific Name: Umbellularia californica
Description: California bay laurels are broad-leaved evergreen trees with rounded, oblong, or pyramidal crowns. They are in the same family as avocadoes--the Lauraceae. Young trees have smooth bark, but as they age, the bark turns scaly and flakey. The most noticeable feature of this tree isn’t its looks, but its aroma! The early settlers of the West gave this species the nickname “pepperwood,” because when the thick, dark green leaves are crushed, they give off a scent like pepper. In fact, parts of California bay laurels have been used by American Indian tribes for hundreds of years as food seasoning. Dried leaves are still used today to add flavor to meals, although some people are severely allergic to the spicy oils in the leaves! Deer eat California bay laurel leaves, shoots and twigs, which are very high in protein. Mammals both large and small use the trees for cover, and many bird species select California bay laurels for nest sites. California bay laurels, which grow excellently along waterways, have been used to restore stream channels and prevent flooding. California bay laurel wood is highly valued for use in making cabinets, furniture, paneling, and interior trim. Additionally, wood carvers often use burls from California bay laurels to make novelty items. Burls, which are rounded outgrowths on tree trunks and branches, have deformed wood grains that are considered beautiful by many people. You may come across California bay laurel wood carvings advertised as myrtlewood.
Size: Depending on habitat conditions, California bay laurels grow as small shrubs or large trees. The largest specimens reach over 100 feet tall, but a more typical height is 40 to 80 feet.
Habitat: When it comes to habitat, California bay laurels aren’t too picky! They grow in full sun or partial shade, and can be found in habitats as diverse as humid coastal forests to dry chaparral. The largest California bay laurels take root on floodplains and in areas with nearby water sources. In drier conditions, they take on a much smaller scrub form.
U.S. Range: As their name implies, California bay laurels are native to California, specifically along the coast and in lower elevations of the Sierra Nevada. The southwestern corner of Oregon is also included in the tree’s range.
Life History and Reproduction: Yellowish-green California bay laurel flowers form in clusters at the ends of branches. In northern California, flowers form from April to September, but in southern California, they may be present year round. The fruit, which is called a drupe, has a similar structure to a peach or olive. California bay laurel drupes are round, less than an inch in diameter, and green to reddish-purple in color. The fruit ripens from September to November, and the seeds inside are consumed by squirrels, Steller’s jays, and dusky-footed woodrats.
Fun Fact: Leaves of the California bay laurel have been used by people to get rid of head lice and to discourage fleas. Scientists now think that dusky-footed woodrats use the aromatic leaves to keep fleas out of their nests!
Conservation Status: One of the greatest concerns for management of this species is that it is very susceptible to the fungal disease heart rot.