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California Bay Laurel

California Bay Laurel

Umbellularia californica

Status: Not Listed

Classification: Plant

Description

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).

Range

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.

Life History

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.

Conservation

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.

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. For some people, the oils from the leaves of this tree can be toxic.

Sources

City of Glendale Indigenous Tree Program

NatureServe Explorer

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

Oxford Academic Journals

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