Umbellularia californica is a large hardwood tree native to coastal forests and the Sierra foothills of California, as well as to coastal forests extending into Oregon. It is endemic to the California Floristic Province. It is the sole species in the genus Umbellularia.

The tree was formerly known as Oreodaphne californica. In Yuki, it is called pōl’-cum ōl. 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, headache tree, mountain laurel, and balm of heaven.

The tree's pungent leaves have a similar flavor to bay leaves, though stronger, and it may be mistaken for bay laurel. The dry wood has a color range from blonde (like maple) to brown (like walnut). It is considered an excellent tonewood and is sought after by luthiers and woodworkers.

The tree is a host of the pathogen that causes sudden oak death.

It is an evergreen tree growing to 30 m tall with a trunk up to 80 cm thick. The largest recorded tree is in Mendocino County, California, and measured (as of 1997) 108 feet (33 m) in height and 119 feet (36 m) in spread.

The fragrant leaves are smooth-edged and lance-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 small umbels (hence the scientific name Umbellularia, "little umbel"). Unlike other "bay laurels" of the genus Laurus, Umbellularia has perfect flowers (male and female parts in the same flower).

Observations Map

The fruit, also known as "California bay nut", is around 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. Umbellularia is in fact closely related to the avocado's genus Persea, within the family Lauraceae. The fruit ripens around October–November in the native range.

Ethnobotany

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

Poultices of Umbellularia leaves were used to treat rheumatism and neuralgias. A tea was made from the leaves 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 afterward, 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 a 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 used in cooking or pressed into cakes and dried for winter storage. It has been speculated that the nuts contain a stimulant; however, this possible effect has been little documented by biologists.

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