The California bay is a very tall tree (20-30 m) which is renowned for its many medicinal, nutritional and artisanal properties. It may, however, be a carrier of a pseudo-fungus (Phytophthora ramorum), responsible for sudden oak death, and therefore requires vigilance.


Identity Card

Common name Oregon myrtle, California laurel, Peppernut tree, Balm of heaven
Binominal name Umbellularia californica (Hook. & Arn.) Nutt.

Taxonomy

Kingdom Plantae
Family Lauraceae
Synonyms Tetranthera californica Hook. & Arn.

Detailed Informations

Area of origin USA: Oregon, California; Mexico: Baja California

Etymology

Umbellularia, “small umbels” in Latin, refers to the shape of its inflorescences. Californica means “from California”.

Description and flowering period

Umbellularia californica is a persistent tree reaching 20 to 30 meters in height. Its lance-shaped aromatic leaves are reminiscent of laurel leaves, which belongs to the same family.

When bruised, the leaves release a strong scent which can cause headaches. The yellowish flowers are small and arranged in umbels (an inflorescence with branches arising from the same point on a common peduncle). The fruit, commonly referred to as “California bay nut” is a small round and green berry, lightly spotted with yellow and resembles a mini avocado (the genus Persea: avocado trees, is closely related to Umbellularia). Turning purple once mature, the fruit presents a thin tough skin and a fatty flesh surrounding a single hard pit with a paper-thin husk.

Habitat

It appreciates any soil type and is hardy to -12°C.

Uses

Food & drink: Dried leaves are used in small doses as seasoning (just like laurel leaves, the leaf must be left to cook with the dish); in Amerindian civilisations, the flesh of the fruit was eaten once dried and the seeds were roasted.

Crafts: The wood, ranging from blond to brown once dried, is recognised by luthiers as a world-class tone-wood for guitar making. It is also commonly used for kitchen utensils…

Medicinal: In Amerindian civilisations, it is used to treat headaches, toothaches and ear infections (leaves), rheumatisms et neuralgias (leaf poultice), stomach-aches, sore throats and bronchitis (leaf infusions).

Notes

This species is the only one in its Genus. It can be a host of the pathogen responsible for “Sudden Oak Death”: disease which decimates oak trees of Oregon and Californian forests.

Translated by: François Saint-Hillier – MNHN


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