Status: Not Listed
California bay laurels are broad-leaved evergreen trees with rounded, oblong, or pyramidal (pyramid-shaped) crowns. They are in the same family as avocados—the Lauraceae. Young trees have smooth bark, but as they age, the bark turns flaky and scaly. 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 large and small use the trees for cover, and many bird species select California bay laurels for nest sites. California bay laurels, which grow well along waterways, have been used to restore stream channels and prevent flooding. The wood of California bay laurels 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. Consumers may come across California bay laurel wood carvings advertised as myrtlewood.
Depending on habitat conditions, California bay laurels can grow as small shrubs or large trees. The largest specimens reach over 100 feet (30 meters) tall, but a more typical height is 40 to 80 feet (12 to 24 meters).
As their name implies, California bay laurels are native to California, specifically along the coast and in lower elevations of the Sierra Nevada. They can also be found in the southwestern corner of Oregon. California bay laurels can grow in full sun or partial shade, and occupy a diverse variety of habitats, from humid coastal forests to dry shrublands. 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 shrub form.
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 (2.5 centimeters) 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. A California bay laurel may live 200 years or more.
One of the greatest concerns for management of this species is its susceptibility to a fungal disease called heart rot. Old or scarred trees are often invaded by this fungus. The wood from this tree is commercially used in cabinetry, furniture, paneling, and interior trim.
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. For some people, the oils from the leaves of this tree can be toxic.
City of Glendale Indigenous Tree Program
Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program, University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
U.S. Forest Service
Oregon Wood Innovation Center, Oregon State University
The crisis isn't just a global problem—we're facing it in our own backyards. Meet some of the species that are already seeing an impact.Read More
President and CEO Collin O’Mara reveals in a TEDx Talk why it is essential to connect our children and future generations with wildlife and the outdoors—and how doing so is good for our health, economy, and environment.Watch Now
What's on deck with the National Wildlife Federation? Check out our scheduled events—we just might be coming to a city near you!See Events
Place your order today for the themed box that delivers everything you need to create family memories while discovering nature and wildlife.Learn More
More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.