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!

Loving the Richmond Bridge: Definitely Not a Rant about the Golden Gate

If my readers will indulge me in a moment of inclemency, I have something to get off my chest: I absolutely loathe crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Photo by Richard Price on Unsplash

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Ethel M. Chocolate Factory & Cactus Garden – Henderson, Nevada

Once my niece and nephew and I were all buckled in the backseat of my sister’s ancient Montero, I turned to my nephew – proudly perched in his new booster seat – and asked, “So what was your favorite part of our adventure, buddy?”

“Um…” he said, grinning. “All of it.

“All of it!” I repeated, arranging my souvenir bag on the floor as we pulled out of the parking lot, my hips wedged tightly between the two car seats, my shoulders scrunched. “That was pretty yummy chocolate, huh?”

“Um, yeah. And machines! Machines that make chocolate! It’s like a dream come true!” My nephew giggled, beaming out the window. “I’d need some pretty big Legos to make something that cool.”

Huh, I thought, the obvious dawning on me. I should’ve taken pictures inside the factory.

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Ethel M Chocolates in Henderson, Nevada, featuring a chocolate factory and a cactus garden!

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Wild Enraptured Exclamations

At the most recent full moon, on October 13th, I headed out into the Mojave to watch the moon rise.

It’s something I used to do in college. In Provo, I lived within a five-minute drive of several gorgeous hiking trails in the Wasatch Range. I’d park my pickup at a trailhead parking lot, climb into the truck bed, wrap myself in a quilt, and watch the silvery moon calmly slip between the rocky peaks above me to the east. All this without having left the city limits.

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Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

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Crystal Metamorphing into Something Dad-ish

When I was three or four years old, random friendly grown-ups started asking me what color this or that was, what my favorite food was, and what my daddy did for work.

“He’s a geophysicist!” I’d announce, and they’d look at my parents with something like awe, and make a comment about how smart I was to know a word like geophysicist.

I’ve always enjoyed a compliment, but if we’re being fair, I didn’t actually know the word. I could pronounce it, sure, and that’s not nothing for a pre-schooler, but I didn’t know what it meant. Flabbergasted I could use in a sentence, thanks to a Little Golden Book featuring poems about Sesame Street characters. Geophysicist, not so much.

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Left to right: Me, my oldest brother, Dad, and Katrina in 1992. Photo taken by my mother.

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Lemon Trees and Second Spring

Over the past two weeks, as much of the United States prepares for crunching leaves and dormant plant life, the second spring has come to the Mojave. And with the arrival of this second spring, I found myself tending to my balcony garden and marveling that I should have loose soil in my hands during the first days of October. Such is life in the desert.

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Photo by Ghislaine Guerin on Unsplash

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Inhaling the Vanilla Forest – Or, The Arboretum at Flagstaff

Before we get to the Arboretum itself, here’s a fun fact I didn’t mention last weekdendrochronology, or the scientific study of tree rings, was first founded in Flagstaff, Arizona, at Lowell Observatory.

How, you ask, did such a skyward-focused establishment stumble upon something so terrestrial?

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Ponderosa pine cross-section on display at the Arboretum at Flagstaff. Notice the particularly thick bark layer. All photos courtesy of yours truly.

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The Underworld and the Heavens – Or, Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona

I’d just completed the Pluto Walk: an uphill length of sidewalk stretching to the tippy-top of Mars Hill, where one finds the Pluto Telescope Dome surrounded by fragrant ponderosa pines. The walk demonstrates a to-scale approximation of the distances between the planets in our solar system, beginning with our Absurdly Bright Star at the bottom and culminating with Pluto. Each celestial body is marked on the sidewalk itself and is highlighted with panels featuring pertinent facts about the planet and its discovery.

But wait, you’ll object. I thought Pluto wasn’t considered a planet anymore. 

You’re not wrong. Pluto is now the best known of the dwarf planets, and is the namesake for plutoids (ice dwarfs) and plutinos (distant members of our solar system with funky orbital habits) found in the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune. The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona knows this. Pluto is honored here not out of astronomical dissent, but out of pride.

You see, it was here that Pluto was first discovered.

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This building houses the actual telescope commissioned to discover “Planet X.” It succeeded in capturing the first images of Pluto in 1915, and the significance of those images was recognized in 1930! (All photos by yours truly.)

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Memento Mori VI – Or, The Gecko on the Ceiling

CW: Animal death, decomposition, grotesque imagery, grim humor

Sometime in the night, the tokay gecko had finished a battle mortally wounded, had climbed to one of the most out-of-the-way vertical surfaces in the parking structure, and had perished.

So it was that early Sunday morning, I spotted the mottled grey-and-orange corpse while walking with my family from our condo to our van. I was sixteen and living in Pakkret, just outside of Bangkok, Thailand. The tokay gecko clung to a cement support beam spanning the vast ceiling, on the face overlooking the cars, rather than the side facing the open air over the man-made Nichada Lake. He happened to be situated directly above our assigned spot.

We did not yet realize the lizard was dead—after all, dead things don’t cling to vertical surfaces on their own. We noticed him, figured he was hunting some morning insects, and forgot him in moments.

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Close-up of green gecko’s toes clinging to glass. Photo sources.

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European Adventurers Discover Seven Magic Mountains, Las Vegas, Nevada

Sunset only added to the stones’ fluorescence. I had not expected this. Usually, dimming light can be relied upon to fade any colors within reach, but Seven Magic Mountains challenged the rule.

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Two Magic Mountains, with the sunset over the Mojave in the background. Photo by Jasper.

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