California Bay Laurel – one of the scents of home

The idea of home is a strange one to me.  Moving as often as I have my version of home is more of a set of environmental conditions rather than a living space or a house.  Last week I had an opportunity to pass through the place that feels most like home.

It is a cloudy, damp, foggy portion of land on the northwest coast of California, a place where the land falls sharply into the chilly Pacific and the beaches are as often rocky as sandy.  The hills are steep sided with sensuously rounded tops, sometimes grassy, other times thickly covered in evergreen trees, and much of the region is protected open space.

West Marin, looking at Bolinas and north along the San Andreas fault. Inverness Ridge and Drake’s Bay are visible in the background.

When I was little, West Marin, more specifically the Point Reyes National Seashore, Inverness, Tomales Bay, and Mt. Tamalpais were where I spent much of my time rambling about, climbing trees, playing in shallow cold streams, swimming in the ocean, eating berries, and watching the wildlife.  Whenever I can I return to let the fog play over my skin and to breath the air flavored with the scents of California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica), Douglas Fir needles (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and invasive eucalyptus trees.

To the east of the San Andreas fault the land is open, primarily coastal prairie, with the trees safely nestled into the hollows or up against boulders to avoid the strong ocean winds.  The California Bay trees are particularity well adapted to this environment and form dense wind-sculpted stands, looking like glacier scoured boulders.

Low California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica) trees sculpted by the ever-present coastal winds

Umbellularia californica trees are tolerant of a variety of conditions and wide spread through California.  They reach into southern Oregon, but, as is true of many plants, California is their epicenter.  In stressful conditions, windy or dry, they only grow to a few feet in height, more of a resilient shrub than a tree.  Where they are protected from the wind and have a good supply of water they reach tremendous proportions, 150 feet or more tall, narrow and slender if competing with redwoods and Douglas fir trees, broad and robust when growing in the open.  Colonies of these trees will sometimes root-graft together, covering a portion of a hill in a single tangled mass of roots and trunks.  The wood decays quickly in the damp and large California bay trees often have multiple hollow trunks, providing homes to numerous animals and giving them a dark and mysterious appearance. The trunks are often covered in dense moss.

Umbellularia californica trunk with a characteristic coat of moss

Umbellularia californica is the only species within its genus and is known by a great variety of common names, Pepperwood, Spicebush, Cinnamon Bush, Peppernut, Oregon Myrtle, Mountain Laurel, Headache Tree, Balm of Heaven, and California Bay to list just a few.  The variety of names reflects its wide range of uses, uses that include medicine, food, insect repellent, timber, and, oddly, currency.  In the early 1930s the bank in the town of North Bend Oregon closed and the local currency collapsed.  The town adopted a currency of coins carved from the wood of this tree.  In North Bend, this currency is still legal tender, though few coins survive to this day.

Leaves, flower buds, and a ripe bay nut

The leaves are rich in pungent oils.  As children we used to put green leaf-covered branches on the fire to watch them flare up as the oil spat and burned.  When dried the leaves are as good for seasoning as the Mediterranean bay laurel, though much stronger and more spicy in flavor.  As with eucalyptus leaves, inhaling the steam from boiled leaves does wonders for stuffy sinuses, and the bay nuts can be roasted and eaten once the fleshy exterior is peeled off.  The fruit looks a bit like the small wild avocado fruits one finds in Central and South America, which makes sense as both the California bay laurel and avocados are in the Laurel (Lauraceae) family.

A dense understory of ferns is common where California bay trees are large

Where the California bay laurels are large and healthy a dense understory of shrubs and ferns is common, California Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) and Western Sword Ferns (Polystichum munitum) are particularly abundant in West Marin.

Western Sword Ferns (Polystichum munitum) growing under a large, multi-trunked California bay laurel

These evergreen ferns grow large, individual fronds often reaching 2.5 to 3 feet in length.  The fronds are waxy and leathery studded long the edges with small teeth and points.  Most people are familiar with these ferns from the moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi, the place the Ewoks live.

Western Shield Ferns look like primordial Christmas Ferns

For those of you in New England the western sword fern will be immediately recognizable as an enormous Christmas fern.  One can easily imagine tough mouthed dinosaurs grazing on these giant ferns.  Today they are rarely eaten by anything except when the fronds are young, or an intrepid insect cuts free a chunk of leaf.

Home is the gentle drip of tangy flavored fog-born moisture dripping from the leaves of the California bay laurels falling onto glistening ferns.  The deeply textured gray of low hanging fog drifting through the forest, the salty bite of cold wind whipping down from the north Pacific, and the constant rustle of animals and water in the underbrush.

One of my homes.

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One comment on “California Bay Laurel – one of the scents of home

  1. Jen says:

    I’ve only lived here 3 years but when I found mt tam and hiked in that magical fog laced laurel scented place I felt like this was finally home!

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