Home & Garden Columns

The Tree of Many Names Scents Our Woodlands

By Ron Sullivan, Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 22, 2006

Up in the hills, in the parks and in the places next to them, are Monterey pines—imported from Monterey, and many now old and ill and tottering—and native trees: redwoods, the odd Douglas fir, oaks, and a tree of many names, its official binomial being quite a melodious mouthful, Umbellularia californica.  

It’s confusing to talk about sometimes, because it’s known in English as California bay laurel here and Oregon myrtle in Oregon. Or Coos Bay laurel, probably a mash of the first two names.  

Or California bay or California laurel (but there’s an unrelated and non-similar big shrub/small tree by that name too) or bay, bay laurel (but there’s another tree by that name too, of course), baytree, black myrtle, cinnamon bush, laurel (lots of things get called that), mountain laurel (more often used for a gorgeous eastern North American shrub), myrtle (lots of unrelated plants go by that name), myrtletree, myrtlewood, Pacific myrtle, pepperwood, spice-tree, white myrtle, or yellow myrtle.  

It’s also called “headache tree,” either because inhaling its scent too long can allegedly give you headaches (I’ve never experienced this myself) or because the local pre-Columbian folks used a decoction of some part of it to cure headaches. Maybe both; who knows?  

It’s easier to learn to pronounce “Umbellularia.”  

Umbellularia gives our local woodlands a big component of their characteristic spicy scent, mostly from the carpet of its leaves underfoot. The dried leaves have a scent rather different from the green ones on the trees: more mellow, more complex. It rises to meet you as you walk under the arching trees, and intensifies when you step on the leaves. It’s spicy with a hint of camphor up front and something brown and tobaccolike at base.  

But don’t take my attempt at description as gospel; go on up to Tilden and walk under the (uh-oh, whatsitsname?) Californibays on, say, the Caves Trail. Wait, I think they’re calling that the Wildcat Creek Trail lately. This nominative confusion must be contagious.  

On that trail as in other places umbellulaurel grows en masse, you’ll see scant understory, and often no other tree species. That’s partly because those nifty scents it makes are accompanied by water-soluble compounds that leach into the soil to inhibit root elongation in other plants, and of course because a closed forest canopy in a dry place tends to shut other plants out.  

But there are coral-root orchids along that Tilden trail, and I’ve found thimbleberries and flowering currants, trilliums and tanoaks and sword ferns among others growing under umbellularibays. Old stands—more or less what naturalists call “climax forests”—can be pretty exclusive, but Califoregon baytles thrive in mixed woods along with redwoods, live and deciduous oaks, madrones, tanoaks, chinquapins, Douglas fir, and whatever else their range offers for companionship.  

Peppermyrtlaurels resprout readily after fires, and evidently also after other catastrophes too. You can find magnificently gnarled, sculptured, hollowed-out semicircles of trunks rising from a single vast volcano-shaped trunk mass in forests that have survived fires, and growing alone in meadows, like the one in the photo near the Bear Valley visitors’ center in Point Reyes National Seashore.  

Whiteyellowblack myrtle has an interesting little fruit that looks rather like a miniature smooth-skinned avocado. Squirrels and other wildlife eat it, and it’s edible for us too. I’ve heard differing opinions on how palatable the fatty flesh around it is, but the pre-Columbians roasted the seed inside and ate it plain or ground it up and made meal for sun-dried cakes to store for later.  

When you take the road north and cross the Oregon border, you find souvenir stands selling stuff from buttons to bowls carved from Oregoos Baylaumyrtle. They’re pretty; the wood has rich yellow-to-red tones and an interesting grain, and makes swirly burls. A carpenter friend of mine once warned me that it tends to dry out and split, though, so if you buy or make such an item, be sure to keep it oiled and don’t put it in a sunny window.  

A local outfit named Juniper Ridge makes assorted things from Western scented plants, and its California Bay Laurel soap captures the fragrance pretty well. You can find it at farmers’ markets, places like The Gardener, and (best price I’ve seen) the Berkeley Bowl. It’s a good trip down Memory Trail if you like to walk the woods, but be aware that a few people find the oils to be a skin irritant. I’m allergic to an annoying number of things and it hasn’t bothered me, but I know someone who got a short-lived rash from it. Try it on the inside of your elbow first. If you can’t use it for soap, it makes an inspiring room scent.  



Photograph by Ron Sullivan 

This Umbellularia californica shelters some of the deer, squirrels, birds, and lizards of Point Reyes National Seashore.