Mystery Tree is a Bay Laurel

A couple of years back I’d commented that I had this tree growing from seed in the middle of my back yard garden and I didn’t know what it was. Long enough ago that I can’t find the article… I’d thought maybe it was from some cloves as I’d tossed a tin of old cloves (including some large lozenge shaped bits that are their seed case) into the yard a year or two before and wondered if some had sprouted? It had a vaguely cloves like smell to the leaves when crushed, and the flowers looked similar to cloves.

Well, time passes. Eventually they mature. It made fruit.

The fruit look like miniature avocados about the size of a small woman’s thumb or my little finger tip… A BIG seed with a thin coating of what passes for fruit flesh and then a rind like a mini-avocado. Note the quarter in the picture:

California Bay Laurel fruit, size of a quarter

California Bay Laurel fruit, size of a quarter

Well, that’s the California Bay Laurel. It has LOTS of uses, so I’m letting it run. I will need to take out the other 4 that have grown in the back yard too (mostly much smaller) as I don’t have room, or use, for them. I suspect the squirrels have been busy with the seeds…

After a bit of a wait, it has a pop-up, but I like the picture… and hitting reload seems to have cleared the pop-up.

Distinctive Characteristics: This evergreen, shade-tolerant tree has a single or multiple trunks with an open, dome-shaped crown. The shiny, dark-green leaves are narrow, long pointed ovals with smooth edges; leaves can reach 4 in. (10 cm) long and 1.2 in. (3 cm) wide. Small yellowish-green flowers are held in an “umbel,” a number of short flower stalks, equal in length and spreading from a common point, somewhat like umbrella ribs. The tree’s fruit, the bay nut, is a round to olive-shaped green berry about 1 in. (2.5 cm) long; it matures to a purple color with a cap that resembles a golf tee. Under the thin, leathery skin is a bit of green flesh coating a hard, thin-shelled edible pit, in whole resembling a miniature avocado (the trees belong to the same Lauraceae Family).

The tree is similar to its Mediterranean cousin, the culinary Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis), which is smaller in size, with generally narrower leaves containing sweeter oils. All parts of the California Bay Laurel, especially the leaves, contain a distinctively aromatic camphor-like volatile oil that has cooling, irritating, germicidal, and insecticidal qualities. The fragrance is much more aromatic than that of its Mediterranean relative, and it can easily cause headaches that last for days, and can send over-zealously inhaling hikers to the emergency room.

I’ve not had any issue from inhaling the “camphor-like” aroma, so I think some of this is a bit of hype (or don’t sniff it when on M.J. and not knowing when to stop…). It has a reputation for both causing, and curing, headaches. The Native Americans Indians of the area used it as food and as medicinal.

Maximum Age: Approximately 500 years.

Maximum Height and Girth: 108 ft. (33 m) in height; 31 ft. (9.4 m) in circumference.

Oh Dear… in a couple of hundred years, someone is going to have a problem in my back yard….

California Bay Laurel

California Bay Laurel

( Images from rom the wiki article: )

Traditional Uses: California Bay Laurel has long been valued for its many edible, medicinal, insecticidal, and ceremonial uses throughout its range by native cultures including the Cahuilla, Chumash, Pomo, Kashaya Pomo, Miwok, Yujki, Coos, Concow, Maidu, Costanoan, Yukok, Tongva, Tolowa, Ohlone, Karuk, Karok, Mendocino Indians, and Salinan people.

Medicinal: Crushed fresh leaves were inhaled as pain relief for headaches and nasal congestion, though the volatile oils in the leaves may also cause headaches (Cahuilla, Coast Miwok). A poultice was also applied to the head for headaches (Miwok, Yuki, Mendocino Indian). Fresh leaves were placed in water and boiled to make aromatic steam to treat colds and sinus infections (Karok). The light-green tips of new growth were used as a poultice to treat toothache (Lake Miwok). A leaf poultice was used for shingles. A tea was used for sore throats and colds. Leaf oil was used to treat earaches and sores and to prevent allergies in the spring; it was also used to relieve colitis and ulcers. Women used an infusion of the plant for pain after childbirth (Karok). A decoction of the plant was used as a wash for head lice (Mendocino Indian). An infusion of leaves was used as a bath (Mendocino Indian) and a poultice was applied for rheumatism (Pomo, Kashaya Pomo). The leaves were taken as a decoction or poultice for stomachaches (Mendocino Indian, Coast Miwok). Kashaya Pomo doctors would sometimes hit a patient with little branches while singing as a treatment for pain, headache, or colds. A decoction of the leaves was used for menstrual cramps (Kashaya Pomo). A poultice made from flowers was used to reduce swelling. The burning leaf smoke and vapor was used to treat many diseases and to fumigate the house after sicknesses. Leaves were made into an infusion for cramps from diarrhea, food poisoning, or gastroenteritis; a diluted tincture or strong tea can be used as an antimicrobial or antifungal on skin; and a bath may be taken with the leaves for arthritis and joint pain. A repellant tea was made of the root bark, and smoke from burning leaves was used to keep insects out of acorn granaries and houses. Feather-work and baskets were stored with leaves to repel insects. Used also as a flea repellent (Costanoan, Kashaya Pomo, Mendocino Indians).

Food: Both the fruity flesh under the skin and the nut itself are edible. The fruit is palatable raw for only a brief time when ripe; if too ripe, the flesh quickly becomes bruised, like an overripe avocado, and the volatile aromatic oils are so strong that the fruit is inedible. The shelled nuts, which look like the pit of an avocado, are roasted (to remove pungency) in hot ashes and eaten whole, or pounded and sun-dried to make flat cakes that can be eaten right away or stored for winter’s use. Roasted nuts or cakes are eaten with greens, buckeye meal, acorn meal, mush, or seaweed. They were also ground into a powder and roasted to make a beverage with the taste of unsweetened coffee or burnt cocoa. While the leaf can be used in cooking, it is spicier and stronger than the Mediterranean seasoning and used in smaller quantity.

Tools and Objects: The wood was used to make bows (Western Mono).

There’s more at the link, go there if interested…

So now I’ve got a bit of a “project”. I’ve let it grow big enough to be interesting, and the squirrels seem to like it, and, well, I find the range of uses intriguing. So it’s going to be there as long as I’m here. May even try a “bath may be taken with the leaves for arthritis and joint pain” just to see if it does anything.

For another posting ‘some day’, two of these sprouted at the same time about 4 feet from each other. One south west of the other. Their difference in growth is surprising. This has important implications for tree rings as thermometers… so once nice weather returns, I’m hoping to get a photo of it and make a posting on that point. It isn’t often you have a personal history with two trees in just the right orientation…

So there you have it. A mystery solved. Disappointment at NOT having a cloves tree. Fascination at having a native medicinal and food tree. Interest in observing how tree rings depend on location, location, location.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
This entry was posted in AGW Science and Background, Plants - Seeds - Gardening and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Mystery Tree is a Bay Laurel

  1. p.g.sharrow says:

    We have many of these trees in our woods. The wood makes nicer handles then Ash or Hickory, very fine grained white wood, about Oak dense. I have heard of these many uses but have not tried most of them. Beautiful Evergreen Tree that gives a nice scent to a summer breeze…pg

  2. John F. Hultquist says:

    I’ve learned the advantages and disadvantages of planting trees around the house and other buildings.
    Without going into a full lecture on the topic let me just suggest starting a new tree about every 5 years and removing the biggest one.
    Just for the fun of it, take the picture of the tree with the single rail fence around it to a person skilled in removal of large trees. Ask what it costs to take something down of that size and shape.
    Finally, some communities have laws about removing trees and you must get a permit – if they wish to allow it. Some folks just cut them down and then pay the fine. One place, I think, had a 7″ diameter rule – under 7, your choice; over 7, get the permit.

    In Oregon the tree is known as Oregon myrtle. It is used for all sorts of fancy wood art things. Search images for : Myrtlewood

  3. Gail Combs says:

    Here in NC the cost to remove a big oak overhanging my hay barn that lost a limb (smashing a gate and fence) was $700.

  4. philjourdan says:

    Now THAT is a tree!

    My sister gets that kind of stuff as well. She regularly tosses her organic waste into the back of her yard. Which has generated some nice cantaloupes and tomatoes! Along with other plants that seem to grow wild and have not been identified yet. But then she lives in the country. Our neighbors frown on such a practice in the suburbs.

  5. Gail Combs says:

    Phil, that is what composting is for. If done correctly it does not smell and organic waste ===> rich soil pretty fast. The only problem is kitchen waste will attract skunks, coons, rats and other unwanted varmints. That is why it is often outlawed.

  6. beng135 says:

    Bay laurel is an interesting & rather unique tree, but it won’t grow here in the mid-Atlantic states.

    Do you think you might need the others for pollination to continue getting fruit? Or are there others nearby for that, or maybe it’s self -fertile?

  7. E.M.Smith says:


    Well, the one bigger tree produced fruit when the little ones were not yet mature enough to flower, so I think it’s OK as a loner. Given that several of them “just showed up”, I think the squirrels are likely relocating the seeds from another one somewhere nearby. I’ll need to take a walk around the block looking at trees and see if I can spot one… if the rain ever lets up…

    @Gail & Phil:

    I ran a nice compost pile for a few years, then essentially went to a ‘turn under in place” garden system. Essentially putting the compost process a foot or two under the top of the garden squares. Since I was pretty much always replanting one of them, it was easy to keep stuff moving under… There are really nice barrel based composters. Think 50 gallon barrel mounted as a drum you can rotate with a crank handle. The claim is they compost stuff in a week or two and without odor. I’ve planned to get one, but not done it, and now likely won’t as I’m in need of a yard re-work. (Spending a couple of years in Florida, the garden is now more ‘lawn with hidden pavers’ than garden… Bermuda and Saint Augustine mixed grasses grew in quickly…)

    Per “who owns my tree”: My neighbor is dealing with that thanks to the Coastal Redwood Commission. He has a free standing redwood just about the right height to crush his house when it falls, and located directly upwind in the usual big blow direction. For those who don’t know, redwoods have shallow roots and stand up well to storms when in a dense grove, but tend to “fall right over” when singletons. Coastal Redwood Commission said it was beautifying the neghborhood too much to take it down. Moral of story? Never EVER plant a Redwood Tree in California. There are also some rules about heritage oaks in the area, but the size is large. FWIW, my approach to such things is just to indulge in the salami technique of pruning…

    FWIW about a decade back the neighbor a couple of houses down had her “Street Tree” topple toward her front door. Ash? something like that… It was about 2 to 2.5 feet diameter at the trunk. Well, being a granny type and not country skilled, was trying to figure out how to get out of her house and fretting about ‘what to do’ about the tree. (Also retired on not much money…) Well, I fetched an ax and my Sven Saw (bow saw) and some nippers and set to work ‘pruning’ away from the door. Nip nip nip to where you could see the limb, saw saw saw until you could drag it to the front of the yard. In about 10 minutes we had cleared her front door enough to have easy entry / exit without fighting leaves. (Luck had it not quite touching the house with anything big enough to do damage, but with a nice wall of leaves about 6 inches from the door…) Her grandson showed up, then some other neighbors and friends. In just a few hours we had a pile of leaves and twigs in the street yard waste piles, and a nice stack of wood for her fireplace at the side of the yard. All done by hand. It really doesn’t take much to prune a tree back to the trunk, then take down the segments and split them…

    @John F.:

    Depends on the particular kind of tree. I planted an Italica Theves the tall skinny kind, in a 2 foot wide dirt strip next to a trailer / coach once. Figuring it would grow fast enough to provide some shade, but not fast enough to be an issue for a ‘very long time’. Well, that sucker put on about an inch to 1.5 inches of RADIUS per year. Inside a few years it was over a foot diameter at the base and about 30? feet tall. I had to take it down… (Nice wood, though…) At the other extreme, plant an oak or citrus, you can be waiting a very long time…


    Yeah, the references pointed out the good working qualities of the wood:

    Art and Ceremony: The plant was used in many ceremonies. Leaves and branchlets were used for ceremonial purification, and branches were fashioned into drumsticks. Children threw leaves into fires to hear them crack like firecrackers (Karok). The foliage was placed on a fire during the Brush Dance to drive away evil spirits (Karok). Leaves were rubbed on the body before hunting, to hide human odor (Kashya Pomo). Small, leafy branches were hung in houses to ward off harm or were burned to dispel bad luck in the home (Kashaya Pomo, Yurok). The smoke was waved over people as they left the home. The wood was used to make split-wood clapper instruments for dance circles (Costanoan).

    Modern Uses: “Myrtlewood,” as it is marketed in Oregon, is sought after by woodworkers around the world. It is considered an excellent tonewood (used to construct the back and sides of acoustic guitars and violins). The beautiful wood is also used for cabinets, furniture, paneling, and veneer. Burls are used for making turned bowls, spoons, and other small tourist items.

    I have a very old fruitless pear tree that has fireblight, so is slowly dying back. At some point it needs to come out. I’d mourned the loss of shade so not done it yet. Then this one moved in. It is about 15 feet due south of the other, and is growing in nicely. About one or two more years, it can be the yard shade tree. So this summer I’m going to start pruning back the other tree. (It was old when we moved in here 30 ish years ago… ) I figure after a couple of years of heavy pruning, the stump can be treated with remover and / or put some mushroom plugs in it ;-) (Wonder if there is a mushroom that grows on redwood… the neighbor might want that…)

    Given the present rate of growth, about an inch diameter / year or less, I figure I’ve got about 20 years before it’s an issue for anyone, and that anyone won’t be me anyway ;-)

  8. philjourdan says:

    @Gail – Composting only works if you can do it away from the dwelling place. But in the middle of suburbia, that is not always possible.

  9. pg sharrow says:

    @EMSmith, are you sure that your Bay is a California Bay and not a Mediterranean Bay? The pips or fruits you show are much larger then those here. Our’s tend to be around 1/2 inch in size. The Med Bay is often planted in yards of city and town dwellers. Your Bay might be drift from some neighborhood planting. The leaves of the California Bay are very long to width like a Blue Gum Eucalyptus with a strong resin smell. The Mediterranean Bay has a much wider and shorter leaf with a milder “Bay” aroma…pg

  10. E.M.Smith says:


    The roller drum things work in urban areas but for small lots. Being sealed and fast they don’t have smell issues.

    For example.


    Those photos are from the Wiki. Mine is as you described. Fruit about like the tip of a medium finger, leaves lanceolate long and slender, with strong aroma like cloves.

    BTW, today I tested the medicinal claim for discomfort relief from a bath with the leaves. Seems to have been some mild relief for some joint pains. Could just be placebo, but enough to do it again tomorrow. Used 4 twiggs between a royal cubit and a yard long each. Just tossed into a hot bath and soaked in it.

  11. DonM says:

    How to remove a tree without a permit:

    Drill 1″ into tree at the base with 3/4″ bit, fill hole with round-up, repeat as necessary until canopy turns brown. (large dia trees require more drill holes … not enough drill holes and only one side of the canopy dies off. Obvious sign of poisioning.)

    Or, use plastic hair color squeeze type containers with small hole in bottom. Unearth large root(s) near tree and drill hole. insert squeeze container nozel in drill hole. Fill with round-up and recover. Remove containers (evidence) after a week.

    Don’t salt … too obvious. Don’t contact city with questions about removal until tree is dead.

    [INo Brahney relatives here]

  12. pg sharrow says:

    EMSmith says: Add 4 twiggs about a Royal Cubit to a half a span in length of the California Bay Laurel to the hot bath water before soaking your joint and muscle pain away.
    8-) sounds like something I really should try. I have a deep soaking tub and that aroma should be a wonderful addition inside the Bath House! Winter has been a bit long this year, we are near 200% of normal precipitation and now the Governor and Legislature want to pass a law extending the drought another year! What The ! ! !…. These people really are INSANE…pg

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