Umbellularia californica – California bay laurel, or Oregon myrtle

I’d like to bring this plant to your attention, but first an observation about names.

Common names are so interesting, because they reflect local usage – not only of the language but the plant itself. There are tons of European plants with common names that were applied to plants used daily for remedies – a thought-provoking one that comes to mind are the “banes”: dogbane, leopard’s bane, bane berry, etc. Presumably effective at guarding against or warding off these things (the bane berry is a very toxic poisonous fruit on plants in the genus Actaea. Our native one is A rubra. You can often see the bright, shiny, juicy red berries if you hike in the forest or woodland in late summer.)

Continuing the thought about names: I find it endearing that Oregonians, knowing that their state actually IS the center of the universe, insert the state name into the common name for at least two plants:  Oregon white oak, and Oregon myrtle. If you live in Oregon, that’s what they’re called. There is a cottage industry on the coast in carved objects from Oregon myrtle, which is generally called California bay laurel everywhere else. In other states, Garry oak is first off the tongue for Quercus garryana, but in Oregon it is, yes, Oregon white oak. How this happened I am not sure, but since I live in both Oregon and Washington, I have to switch names in casual conversation with plant people in order to fit in. Without a doubt, Oregonians are special, and they know it.

So, Oregon myrtle, aka California bay laurel. It is not for the small garden space, that’s for sure. If you have the large space though, give it a chance to show off it’s muscular, light grey bark. This one at the Greenlake park Bathhouse is just now (early Feb) beginning to bloom.  In January I took the photo of a red-breasted sapsucker working it over. The winter sun was slanting in to make the holes glow as if lit from within. Their feeding does not usually harm large trees.

Red-breasted sapsucker on U. californica. ©2013 Taylor Gardens. All rights reserved.
Red-breasted sapsucker on U. californica. ©2013 Taylor Gardens. All rights reserved.
Small flowers and a leaf. U. californica ©2013 Taylor Gardens. All rights reserved.
Small flowers and a leaf. U. californica ©2013 Taylor Gardens. All rights reserved.
©2013 Taylor Gardens. All rights reserved.
©2013 Taylor Gardens. All rights reserved.

Advantages: Umbellularia californica is evergreen, carefree and drought tolerant once established. It is an interesting, noteworthy plant for the right space, and marginally native. It does not ask a lot, only attention to regular moisture, moderately good drainage, and humus-y soil during establishment.

According to the OSU Landscape Plants website, it is “Native to southwest Oregon, south along Coast Range, and in Sierra Nevada, to southern California.  It was discovered by Archibald Menzies of the Vancouver expedition in 1790 and introduced as an ornamental plant by David Douglas in 1829. ” There is a photo of a large specimen at Kew Gardens – an example among many North American native plants, sought after in times past in the UK, as horticultural treasures. Menzies discovered it for Europeans – of course Americans knew all about it already.

It may become native north of its current range in California to southern Oregon if the climate continues to warm.There are beautiful thriving examples in the Washington Park Arboretum (UW Botanic Garden) in Seattle, so it is fine to plant it up north.

Mature Cal bay laurel
Mature Cal bay laurel

My phone photo here is fuzzy, but you can use it for a size estimate. Further explication from Oregon State University (and a lovely photo of a mature tree at this link):

Native peoples used the leaves to repel fleas and to treat headaches and poison oak dermatitis.This is NOT the source of “bay leaves” generally used in cooking.  Bay leaves are from Laurus nobilis (True Laurel, Bay Laurel), which also is a member of the family Lauraceae but it is native to the Mediterranean region.  The leaves of Umbellularia californica are sometimes used as a bay leaf substitute but they have much stronger flavor.  The Oregon Myrtle (U. californica) is also NOT the myrtle mentioned in the Bible and used in some Jewish rituals, that myrtle is Myrtus communis or Common Myrtle (in Myrtaceae).

Disadvantages: Well, it is large, so you need to give it space to expand. Las Pilitas Nursery mentions that it is a slow grower and easy to keep at 6′-8′, although that is not my idea of a good time – ladders must be involved –  you can hedge it if you have a line of them. It is susceptible to Sudden Oak Death syndrome in foggy areas of California.  Also some people are allergic to the aromatic leaves either with skin contact or inhalation.

I am going to try that poison oak dermatitis remedy though.

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