Umbellularia Californica – Or, the California Bay Laurel

Only thirty seconds up Andrew’s and my new favorite trailhead stands a majestic sprawling oak the likes of which cannot fail to transport me into fits of exultation.

This essay is not about that tree, though I’ll be shocked if by next fall I haven’t followed up with many unhinged rhapsodic lines on the matter. The moss! The lichens! The flock of red-headed woodpeckers! I’ve got to wait for its leaves to come in fresh so I can be sure of its species.

No – but today’s story begins beneath that tree, under the warming late winter sun, with me gazing through the oak’s branches, my new phone (with its new and better camera!) in my hands. I raised the camera between my face and the tree. Shook my head. Crouched down and raised the phone once more. Hesitated between portrait and landscape mode. Tried to imagine what Katrina, the photographer of the family, might do. Then looked disappointedly at Andrew.

“We’ll need to come back on a greyer day,” I said. “It won’t look right in the pictures with the sun so nice.” I rose and snapped a close-up of a gnarled scar where a small branch had once been.

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“The good news is,” Andrew said, grinning at me from his position beside a tangled, natural mud-and-roots stairwell away from the main trail, hands in his windbreaker pockets, “this way looks a lot drier today.”

He was right. On previous hikes, I’d expressed curiosity about the slim descent, having seen both the path down and the hikers and their dogs squelching along a lower way paralleling the main trail. But, so far, heavy winter rains had made traversing even the upper trail such a messy business that I’d deferred exploration beyond it.

But now, down we went.

The world below the majestic oak opened into a fairytale wood full of quiet filtered light. Peculiar glittering secrecy lived here – something special, and magic, and very, very old, the way particular creeks and hideaways felt in my childhood Louisiana years. I sighed happily, looking around at all the other trees scattered around me with their stately trunks covered in thick, lush moss.

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“I missed this in Vegas,” Andrew said. “All this green.”

“Mm-hmm,” I agreed, taking a deep breath of the whispering, almost-spicy emerald air.

I felt almost guilty, admitting it. I adore the stark Mojave, the cacti and boulders and stubborn parched lichens on shadowed rocks. But wooded spaces nourish me in ways the desert never could. I may be happiest split between worlds, as I am now.

As we walked along the path, I’d started taking close-ups of the lush moss coating the trees. Crouched down with my new phone, unencumbered by concerns about battery life or storage, I focused wholly on each gorgeous tree, trying to capture something of the immovable primordial gravitas I associate with their dense, verdant blankets.

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I thought, at first, that they were oaks, like the elder we’d passed beneath in the first place. But I’d never seen so many oak trees with such pronounced hollows in their trunks – hollows I peered into with interest, wondering who or what might live inside.

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So I looked up, focusing on leaves rather than bark – and found them: slim and smooth and flat, pointed at either end, with only the gentlest gloss to their lime-green skyward-sides.

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I had absolutely no idea what kind of trees these were.

In no way do I mean to suggest I’m some sort of tree expert, though I’m tempted to become one now. But to discover, all of a sudden, that these were certainly not oaks, felt like realizing several minutes into a family event that I’d entered the wrong room and was among perfect strangers. I know oaks, and love them, and am comfortable with their personalities and humor. I’d never seen these trees before in my life.

The mystery trees were gracious enough not to mortify me for my mistake.

That evening, I uploaded several of my pictures to an app I’d seen my sister use on hikes in Red Rock (it’s called iNaturalist, for anyone interested). In response to the leaves, the app suggested I’d probably met Umbellularia californica: the California bay laurel, which naturally occurs only along the coast of California and southern Oregon, with a few instances in Washington and British Columbia, and is the sole species in its genus.

Well: no wonder we’d never met before. In my past years living in California, I’d spent essentially no time in the wild outdoors.

The California bay laurel is a member of the Lauraceae family, the laurels, a vast and ancient, far-flung and complex family including both evergreens and deciduous trees, as well as a smattering of shrubs and parasitic vines, all of which thrive in the warm, moist forests of the world. The laurels existed on this planet with the legendary fauna of the Cretaceous period: Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, Pteranodon. Some paleobotanists believe laurels existed before the breakup of Pangaea.

Lauraceae genera you may have encountered include Cinnamomum, whence both cinnamon and camphor, and Persea, whence the avocado. Not to mention Laurus: the bay trees, whence the bay leaves in your pantry and mine, and the laurel wreaths of ancient Greece.

Umbellularia californica leaves may be substituted for bay leaves in cooking, it turns out – though they taste stronger, and spicier, like their Cinnamomum cousins. And unlike the smaller Mediterranean bays, the California bay laurel looms up to a hundred feet high, competing for territory among redwoods and oaks.

The more I learn of this tree, the more I like – but I’m not here to patch write from Wikipedia. You’ll have to learn about medicinal properties and musical instruments and legal tender wooden coins on your own.

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Somehow I never realized hardwood trees could be evergreen – but the California bay laurel is. And I’d never thought of particular trees having such narrow natural ranges. Never realized I could meet a tree so utterly unfamiliar to me, so completely new and unabashedly ancient. Umbellularia californica existed along the California coast during the Miocene epoch – the same epoch that saw the emergence and diversification of the apes, and the dramatic growth of Mount Everest.

When next Andrew and I went walking along our favorite trail, I watched for the lance-like leaves and the rounded defensive base marking this as another tree that had learned to survive the threat of wildfire. Umbellularia californica was everywhere, tucked among the oaks, bright leaves whispering together, the air around them filled with cinnamon. Slim, straight shoots rose along established branches, stretching towards the glistening sunlight, their soft green stems just growing the thinnest, most delicate first layers of bark.


Have you discovered a new plant somewhere near you lately? Tell us all about it in the comments below!

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Happy witnessing!

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