- Author: Michelle Davis
On a hot Saturday recently I was hiking in the Sunol Regional Wilderness in an oak bay woodland, not bay like water, but bay like tree, actually lots of bay trees. The heavy scent of peppery bay leaf surrounded me. I know that Umbellularia californica is a native California tree, but I had never seen or smelled so many in one area. It is said that the Golden Spike used to connect the Transcontinental Railway in 1869 was driven into a railroad tie made of a California bay tree.
The Native Americans used the leaves from the trees to treat headaches. They added them to poultices with spices to help unconscious people regain consciousness. They burned the leaves to make smoke that would daze deer and make them easier to procure for food. The nuts were harvested in the fall and were used in various ways by different tribes as food – some boiled, some dried, some raw, some roasted.
Leaves of the Umbellularia californica can be used to flavor food, but don't use the amount that your recipe calls for. These leaves contain a lot more of the volatile oil than the European Laurus nobilis, which is probably why I was smelling them so strongly. If you do choose to use them, it is recommended to pick the young, lighter green, shiny leaves and only use about ½ or even ¼ of a leaf of what you would normally add. I won't be eating them, but I truly did appreciate the scent and the shade on the trail that day.