Anyone for soup?
No need to go to the store for bay leaves, California residents; we have our own more potent variety right here!
Like Laurus nobilis, the Mediterranean bay leaf we more commonly eat, the California bay is in the Lauraceae (Laurel) family, but bears the rather delightful Latin name Umbellularia californica. It came out way ahead of the California poppy in nomenclature. It’s the only member of the genus Umbellularia, which seems like kind of a shame.
California bay trees (aka California bay laurels, or California laurels) grow in the coastal woods around the bay here, but are more abundant further north where it’s more moist, and also in Oregon (where they’re called “Oregon myrtles” which seems a bit like cheating. It’s U. californica after all, Oregon). They’re also sometimes used as ornamentals, so I’m not sure whether the ones we’ve got growing at Stanford (where it’s drier) are wild or planted.
In my opinion California bays don’t have a hugely distinctive morphology–the trees are tallish, the leaves are 2-4″ long, glossy, slim and pointed like other bay leaves. The wood is supposed to be very fine as a tonewood for making guitars, but that’s not necessarily obvious as you saunter by the tree. In the spring when they’re in flower they’re more obvious: the flowers are yellow-green and small, and grow right where the leaves meet the stems. Later the fruit grows as a walnut-sized green oval (Wikipedia describes it as like a tiny avocado and that seems very apt). But if you’re in doubt, just crinkle a leaf and smell it–the fragrance is unmistakable.
And you can eat it!
You can use California bay leaves as a flavoring, but I can vouch that they’re much stronger than store-bought bay leaves, so experiment with caution–use half a leaf to start where you would normally use 1 or 2. The fruit is also edible, but I haven’t tried it personally.
Extra nitty-gritty: a note of caution to migraineurs or other headache sufferers
Unfortunately, the fragrance of the California bay isn’t universally loved, and for some people it’s downright noxious, leading to the nickname “headache tree.” The compound responsible for this effect is a monoterpene ketone called Umbellulone.
In a recent paper, Italian neurobiologists investigated the basis for headaches caused by Umbellulone, and found that its inhalation triggered pain in rats by stimulating trigeminal ganglion neurons via the pain receptor ankyrin 1/TRP1A. A similar response was evoked from other headache triggers like cigarette smoke, chlorine, and formaldehyde. So if you’re headache-prone, take a cautious whiff before you stick some in your food. Speaking as a migraineur myself, I’ve never found bay to be a trigger, but scents aren’t generally triggers for me and I’d hate to have any of you guys knocked into an attack by incautious bay-huffing.
Want more details? Here’s the reference:
Nassini R, Materazzi S, Vriens J, Prenen J, Benemei S, De Siena G, la Marca G, Andrè E, Preti D, Avonto C, Sadofsky L, Di Marzo V, De Petrocellis L, Dussor G, Porreca F, Taglialatela-Scafati O, Appendino G, Nilius B, & Geppetti P (2011). The ‘headache tree’ via umbellulone and TRPA1 activates the trigeminovascular system. Brain : a journal of neurology PMID: 22036959