Saturday, February 1, 2014

Umbellularia californica – California Bay

This article is a republish of the "Plant of the Month" article I wrote for the February 2011 RSABG volunteer newsletter "Oak Notes"

I am a self-styled “foodie” and as such harbor an interest in all types of spices, herbs, and flavorings. The California Bay is often compared those ubiquitous leaves hidden in the dusty jar in the back of your cupboard that get pulled out Thanksgiving morning. They look similar, but are dark green a longer and narrower (lanceolate). They are aromatic like Bay Laurel, but many times more so!

The California Bay leaves have a peppery or medicinal smell and some love that and other hate it. When touring the little kids on the “Sensational Walk” tour, I always invite them to have a sniff and while many crinkle their noses a few recall that sniff as the best part of the tour! Anyway, in reading more about this wonderful tree, which can be shrubby in drier places and reach 40-60 feet in Riparian areas, I find that besides using the leaves in cooking (only us a quarter of a small leaf in a stew), one can roast the nuts, extract oil, and carve the wood into money. Yes, back in 1933, money did grow on this tree, which is called Myrtlewood by folks in Oregon. The story is complex, so read it in full on realoregongift.com.

California Bay has a fruit that looks like a miniature avocado with one large seed with a thin seed coat. I read that you can roast the nut in the shell and eat the nut inside, and even grind the nut into a paste, add sugar and make a form of candy like “chocolate”. Maybe I’ll venture out and try that some day! However, for all the ways to use this plant, maybe the best is just to put this slow grower into a large pot on the patio and enjoy its shiny leaves, small dusty yellow flowers (umbels, which is where it gets is name), and thin shedding bark.