Umbellularia californica

Botanical Name :Umbellularia californica
Family :LauraceaeLaurel family
Genus : Umbellularia (Nees) Nutt. – California laurel
Species: Umbellularia californica (Hook. & Arn.) Nutt. – California laurel
Kingdom : Plantae – Plants
Subkingdom : Tracheobionta – Vascular plants
Superdivision: Spermatophyta – Seed plants
Division: Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants
Class : Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons
Subclass: Magnoliidae
Order :Laurales

Common Name :California Laurel

Habitat : Umbellularia californica is a large tree native to coastal forests of California and slightly extended into Oregon.It ranges near the coast from Douglas County, Oregon south through California to San Diego County. It is also found in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It occurs at altitudes from sea level up to 1600 m.

Description:
An evergreen shrub to tree. Its final height is 47′  average (in 100+years). It grows only a few inches a year here along the coast it may grow a much as 4′ or so each year. The leaves are aromatic like its cousin from Greece. Native to the mountains of Calif. and into Oregon. It likes sun in the mountains and along the coast where the rainfall is above 30 inches/year. In the interior give part shade and moderate water. Its leaves used as seasoning. It tolerates serpentine soil. A refined plant. No cold damage at 10 deg., burnt to the ground at 0.Easy to hold at 6-8\’. Good in containers. This species releases terpenes that inhibit seedlings (weeds). (Rice)

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It is the sole species in the genus Umbellularia.

Its pungent leaves have a similar flavor to bay leaves (though stronger), and it may be mistaken for Bay Laurel.The fragrant leaves are smooth-edged and lens shaped, 3–10 cm long and 1.5–3 cm broad, similar to the related Bay Laurel though usually narrower, and without the crinkled margin of that species.

The flowers are small, yellow or yellowish-green, produced in a small umbel (hence the scientific name Umbellularia, “little umbel”).

An unripe Bay nutThe fruit, also known as “California Bay nut”, is a round and green berry 2–2.5 cm long and 2 cm broad, lightly spotted with yellow, maturing purple. Under the thin, leathery skin, it consists of an oily, fleshy covering over a single hard, thin-shelled pit, and resembles a miniature avocado. Genus Umbellularia is in fact closely related to the avocado’s genus Persea, within the Lauraceae family. The fruit ripens around October–November in the native range.
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In Oregon, this tree is known as Oregon Myrtle, while in California it is called California Bay Laurel, which may be shortened to California Bay or California Laurel. It has also been called Pepperwood, Spicebush, Cinnamon Bush, Peppernut Tree and Headache Tree. This hardwood species is only found on the Southern Oregon and Northern California Coast. It has a color range from blonde (like maple) to brown (like walnut). Myrtlewood is considered a world-class tonewood and is sought after by luthiers and woodworkers from around the world.

Historical usage:
Umbellularia has long been valued for its many uses by Native Americans throughout the tree’s range, including the Cahuilla, Chumash, Pomo, Miwok, Yuki, Coos and Salinan people.

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The leaf has been used as a cure for headache, toothache, and earache—though the volatile oils in the leaves may also cause headaches when used in excess. Poultices of Umbellularia leaves were used to treat rheumatism and neuralgias. Laurel leaf tea was made to treat stomach aches, colds, sore throats, and to clear up mucus in the lungs. The leaves were steeped in hot water to make an infusion that was used to wash sores.  The Pomo and Yuki tribes of Mendocino County treated headaches by placing a single leaf in the nostril or bathing the head with a laurel leaf infusion.

Both the flesh and the inner kernel of the fruit have been used as food by Native Americans. The fatty outer flesh of the fruit, or mesocarp, is palatable raw for only a brief time when ripe; prior to this the volatile aromatic oils are too strong, and afterwards the flesh quickly becomes bruised, like that of an overripe avocado. Native Americans dried the fruits in the sun and ate only the lower third of the dried mesocarp, which is less pungent.

The hard inner seed underneath the fleshy mesocarp, like the pit of an avocado, cleaves readily in two when its thin shell is cracked. The pit itself was traditionally roasted to a dark chocolate-brown color, removing much of the pungency and leaving a spicy flavor. Roasted, shelled “bay nuts” were eaten whole, or ground into powder and prepared as a drink which resembles unsweetened chocolate. The flavor, depending on roast level, has been described variously as “roast coffee,” “dark chocolate” or “burnt popcorn”. The powder might also be pressed into cakes and dried for winter storage, or used in cooking. It has been speculated that the nuts of U. californica contain a stimulant;  however this possible effect has been little documented by biologists.

Modern usage
The leaf can be used in cooking, but is spicier and “headier” than the Mediterranean bay leaf sold in groceries, and should be used in smaller quantity. Umbellularia leaf imparts a somewhat stronger camphor/cinnamon flavor compared to the Mediterranean Bay.  The two Bay trees are related within the Laurel family, along with the Cinnamons.

Some modern-day foragers and wild food enthusiasts have revived Native American practices regarding the edible roasted fruit, the bay nut.

U. californica is also used in woodworking. It is considered a tonewood, used to construct the back and sides of acoustic guitars. The wood is very hard and fine, and is also made into bowls, spoons, and other small items and sold as “myrtlewood”.

U. Californica is also grown as an ornamental tree, both in its native area, and elsewhere further north up the Pacific coast to Vancouver in Canada, and in western Europe. It is occasionally used for firewood.

One popular use for the leaves is to put them between the bed mattresses to get rid of, or prevent flea infestations.

Medicinal Uses:
The plant is still used a  pain reliever for headaches and rheumatism.  A tea from the leaves is one method of administration.  For rheumatism, early settlers used a hot bath in which they had steeped laurel leaves.  Others blended the oil from the leaves with lard and rubbed the mixture on the body.  The crushed leaves are an excellent herbal “smelling salt,” held briefly under the nose of a person who is faint or has fainted.  Prolonged breathing of the crushed leaves can cause a short-term frontal headache which can be cured, oddly enough, by a tea of the leaves.  The crushed leaves make an excellent tea for all headaches and neuralgia, possessing substantial anodyne effects and they further have value as a treatment for the tenesmus or cramps from diarrhea, food poisoning, and gastroenteritis in general—two to four leaves crushed and steeped for tea, repeated as needed.  California laurel was employed medicinally by some native North American Indian tribes who used it particularly as an analgesic to treat a variety of complaints. It has a beneficial effect upon the digestive system. An infusion has been used by women to ease the pains of afterbirth. Externally, an infusion has been used as a bath in the treatment of rheumatism. A decoction of the leaves has been used as a wash on sores and to remove vermin from the head. They are harvested as required and can be used fresh or dried.  A poultice of the ground seeds has been used to treat sores.  The seeds have been eaten as a stimulant.

Disclaimer:
The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplements, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider.

Resources:
http://www.herbnet.com/Herb%20Uses_C.htm
http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=UMCA
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umbellularia
http://www.laspilitas.com/nature-of-california/plants/umbellularia-californica

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