Filling crevices and congregating around rocky outcroppings among the sere meadows of the California summer, or occupying the rich damp lowlands of some riparian zone, or just appearing as a usual suspect in our mixed hardwood forests, is often found the California Bay Laurel, Umbellularia Californica. Known variously through its range as Bay, California Bay, Bay Laurel, Pepperwood, Myrtle and Myrtlewood, it is easily identified by its thick, leathery and strongly scented lance shaped leaves. Almost everyone is familiar with the dried bay leaf of commerce. These are from the venerated "Old World" tree Laurus Nobilis. If you imagine these leaves just a little longer and narrower (more lanceolate is the botanical term), as well as green and fresh and without the wavy margin, you pretty much have the California Bay leaf.
The bay tree, like so many others, will develop differently depending upon the conditions in which it is growing. When found on drier hillsides, it is generally smaller, with yellower leaves and smaller nuts. In a canyon with its roots in plentiful water and rich soil, the leaves will be thinner and darker green and whole tree, nuts and leaves will generally be larger. Presumably this is due largely to environment, but we suspect that there are also strains bred by circumstance which have adapted to survive the quite variable environments occupied by the Bay, which seems to have sprinkled itself more widely over California's various habitats than most other tree species have been able to.
You will eventually notice that there is a little eyeless face on each nut. We have heard some mythological stories regarding the origin of this face. Undoubtedly, there are many such oral traditions and an otherwise rich cultural heritage surrounding the natural history and ethnobotany of this tree, much of which is probably already lost and most of the rest of which is in danger of the same fate. Undoubtedly, this trend is tragic in context, but it is also the logical result of clashing cultures and changing life-ways. We can run around, as anthropologists have done, collecting as much data as possible on such matters and recording it in our dead words for posterity; and a tenable argument against this practice is hard to come by, but culture lives or dies by living or dying. If we record the natural and ethnobotanical histories of the bay tree and teach it to our children in their stodgy classrooms, it means little. If we take them on a field trip and show them the tree, it takes on a tad bit more gravity. If we have a class project using some part of it once, it will mean considerably more. Now the relationship has changed from separatist observer to "nature" participant for a day. If a child's household uses the bay tree on a regular basis, a relationship develops, culture is born... culture lives. Remove the relationship and culture withers. Symbols can be retained to try to keep the thing alive, but eventually the depth of meaning may be entirely lost, as in the case of the average industrial person and the christmas tree. Tragic or not, love it or hate it, this is reality. Some of these things we have control over and some we don't. We do what we can, or not, depending on our values and priorities. For us, relationships with wild plants take a fairly high priority, but we must face the fact that in an overcrowded world, becoming exponentially more overcrowded, there are just not enough bay nuts to go around for everyone living in the grace of its presence. This circumstance is a consequence of our decisions as a society, or maybe rather our unwillingness to make decisions that we would prefer not to have to make.
To call the leaf of this tree strong scented is a bold understatement. It contains 7.5% of the volatile oil. It is said that smelling the leaf or putting a piece in your hat band can cure a headache, but it can also cause one. Breath too deeply of the leaves and your sinuses will panic and spasm in pain. Not long after we first met, Tamara took a big whiff of some crushed leaves just to experience this disturbing phenomenon once. (Steven made her do it.) She ended up with a two day migrane which was finally only relieved with an acupuncture treatment.
Moderation is the key with the leaves of this tree. Proceed with caution in using it medicinally or as a flavoring in foods. The strongly aromatic mature leaves, like the leaves of many other aromatic plants, are reputed to be an insect repellant. We have used them to keep bugs away from animal skins and woolens, as well as dried acorns in an outdoor granary. They seemed to help, although we often use other herbs like sagebrush, mugwort, lavender, etc.. with them–the shotgun approach.
There are of course many medicinal uses of the bay tree recorded in the literature. We have not used any of them successfully, but then have not tried most of them, and wouldn't really know what we were doing if we did. Among the more commonly mentioned applications are using it externally for rheumatism and headache and internally for stomach complaints.
Yes, our California Bay Laurel leaves can be used in cooking much like the leaves of the European Laurus Nobilis. However, they are much stronger! We like Laurus bay leaves and will add 6 or more of them to a pot of spaghetti sauce. We made the mistake of using this many of our native bay leaves once, and had to toss our sauce (literally not figuratively). A friend once used the leaves to line an earthen oven to pit bake some deer meat thinking that it would flavor the meat. It did... no one could eat it! We never use over 1/2 of a mature leaf of the native bay in any dish where it is going to stay and simmer in there a long while. One quarter of a leaf will usually suffice. Another strategy is to use very young leaves which contain much less of the volatile aromatic oil. Also, the younger leaves, still light green, smooth and shiny, make a good powdered flavoring if dried and then ground finely. In fact, we suspect that young leaf powder may prove the best all around way to use the bay leaf in cooking, but have yet to prove it.
The flavor of our California Bay is similar to, but not altogether the same as the European Bay and can be generally used as a substitute in the usual places–flavoring olives, tomato sauces, soups, and in companion with the well known mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, thyme, marjoram, oregano and so on.
The remarkably shiny, waxy, and delicate baby leaves can be very mild and make a lovely garnish for salads and such in measured doses. Taste one for yourself when you see them in the springtime.
The Nuts of this tree are edible when roasted and have long been consumed on a regular basis by California Tribal groups as a condiment, digestive aid and stimulant. In consideration of its stimulating properties, it is best not to eat too many at once until you are familiar or you're bound to go nutty for a while. (Maybe that's what's up with those high strung nutty squirrels!) We would describe the buzz as edgier than caffeine, but shorter lived. At least some animals (like squirrels) eat the nuts and/or its fleshy coating. We recently saw a murder of crows snatching nuts in mid flight from an enormous nut-laden solitary tree. Alas, due to a well posted no trespassing fence line, we were unable to go investigate as to whether this party was in honor of the nuts or the husks. Judging from the crazed and erratic nature of this spectacle, it was probably the nuts, unless the flesh also contains a stimulant. Then again, crows are a little wacky anyway.
The nuts are harvested in the fall (Oct-Nov on the north coast here) when they drop from the trees of their own accord. Select nuts that have not sat on the ground too long, judging by the condition of the fleshy outer husk. The thin layer of flesh can be edible when perfectly ripe, but soon becomes rotten and unfit to eat. In this regard, it is much like our Hass avocado, only more so. Furthermore, the flesh also has a strong essential oil flavor associated with basically all parts of the bay tree. This flavor lingers right up until the flesh is ripe enough to eat and often a little after as well. Some trees will produce a thicker and tastier flesh than others while some are downright inedible–most actually. All this considered, the flesh of the fruit can't be considered much more than an "in season" nibble, although it is probably a potential source of edible oil. You might notice the resemblance of the fleshy bay nut to an avocado. That is because they are related. I have lain awake at night plotting the domestication of the bay into small avocado sized fruit rich in oil with an enormous oily seed in the center, but....
Back to the nuts. Husk the nuts soon after harvesting, before the variously colored fleshy coatings begin to wither and rot. A rotten bay nut kernel is a taste best not remembered, but not easily forgotten (though hard to describe); so don't procrastinate. Dry the nuts in the sun if you are lucky enough to have any that time of year; or in any especially warm area with good air circulation. The nuts dry readily, but must be dried readily.
The green nuts are inedible and must be roasted to cook off the volatile oil that they contain. Roast the nuts in the shell after they are completely dry. In the campfire, they are roasted in the the hot ashes at the edge of the fire. For oven roasting, cook in a preheated 450 degree oven for about 20 minutes, stirring every 2 to 3 minutes. They are well done when they reach the color of coffee with a ton of cream in it. Roasted until too dark, the nuts become bitter and, for lack of a better word, sour. Under roasted, some of the aromatic principle remains and they just don't taste very good. There is a fine line between just done and overdone and it takes very little time to go from just right to too far gone, so test them frequently and pull them out as soon as the average nut seems to be the right color.
The shelled nuts can be eaten just roasted as described. They are akin to coffee and bitter chocolate, and are an instant hit with some while being reviled by others. A kind of chocolate can also be made from them. The nuts contain 40-60% of a waxy fat which behaves very much like cocoa butter. If you grind the nuts in a grain mill or on a flat rock into a paste, the friction is sufficient to melt this oil. Adding a small amount of powdered sugar and forming into little balls or cakes makes a product remarkably similar to chocolate. It's not quite chocolate, but it is quite good and appeals to a wider audience than the plain roasted nuts. The traditional form of this cake (pol-cum hot-mil in Yuki) is made without the sugar.
The wood of the bay tree, known as Myrtlewood in Oregon, is beautiful but also subject to attack by some sort of burrowing insect which bores tiny holes through the wood, ejecting a fine powder in the process. Find a dead bay tree in the woods and you will almost inevitably see this powder. We have had objects made from the wood attacked by these insects after many years, so we are hesitant to make many things from it, although it is commonly used for wood turning.
The Bay tree is worth getting to know. It will offer up its products year after year asking nothing in return except that you don't kill it or maim it too badly. You might, however, spread a few seeds around for the future by planting the fresh nuts of your favorite trees. After all, that's what the game's all about, survival & procreation. Human procreation has become the antithesis of survival. When a species becomes too successful, checks and balances will be found, voluntary or otherwise. If we were to plant fewer human seeds and more bay nuts, the future might begin to look less scorched.
© 2005 Steven Edholm & Tamara Wilder
PO Box 876
Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West- by Michael Moore (Red Crane Books)
Plants Used by the Indians of Mendocino County California- V.K. Chesnut
(Published by the Mendocino County Historical Society)