The Real Bay
Last weekend, I brought a few branches of bay leaves from the Oakland hills to the kitchen where I work. The beautiful aroma quickly filled the small room with its heady, eucalyptus-like essence which only ten minutes ago was ripe with the odor of sausage casings. It is very common, especially on the west coast, for this type of bay leaf, commonly known as the California Bay Laurel, to be marketed and sold as the conventional spice. In reality it is a different genus of the large family of Laurel (scientific name Laurus) trees.
The Laurel family encompasses many useful trees and shrub with both medicinal and culinary applications. One important genus in this family is Cinnamom, which includes Camphor Laurel, and two types of trees from which the bark of the tree cinnamon is taken, Cinnamom verum and Cinnamom cassia, better known as “Ceylon cinnamon.” Avocado (Persea americana) is also a member of this family, as is sassafras (genus Sassafras with varying species). The two Laurels that are often confused for each other as use as bay leaves are the true bay leaf, the Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) and the California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica), sometimes called by its other names: Oregon Myrtle, Peppernut Tree, Cinnamon Bush, Spicebush, Headache Tree, California Bay, or California Laurel.
Bay Laurel is an evergreen, indigenous to the Mediterranean where, until roughly ten thousand years ago, there were entire forests of laurels. When the region became drier, the laurel forests were replaced with more draught resistant trees to accommodate for the increasingly severe conditions. Some laurel forests still exist today, mostly in the southern mountains of Spain, north-central part of Portugal, and northern Morocco.
Like many herbs, it has medicinal purposes, in addition to its culinary uses. It has been used as an astringent, diuretic, and in poultices for rashes and rheumatism. The leaves of the Bay Laurel are shiny and slightly rounder than their Califonian relative, with slightly crinkled edges. They are also somewhat milder in flavor in and aroma.
The California Bay Laurel has longer, thinner leaves without the crinkled edges of the true Bay Laurel. It bears small green 2-3 cm long fruit, green with small yellow speckles when immature and purple when ripe. The interior of the fruit looks somewhat avocado-like, and is traditionally eaten by indigenous peoples roasted or dried. The tree is native to a large area as far south as San Diego County and as far north as Douglas County, Oregon. Tribes known to use the tree for medicinal purposes include the Cahuilla, Chumash, Pomo, Miwok, Yuki, Coos and Salinan people. The leaves have been used to treat headaches (hence the name “headache tree”), tooth aches, rheumatism, stomach pains, colds, and congestion. The leaves of the California Bay Laurel can be used similarly to Bay Laurels, but more sparingly due to their extremely strong flavor, and it should be noted that they have a slightly more spiced flavor than Bay Laurel.
You can find California Bay Laurels almost everywhere in Northern California—in the Oakland Hills in Juoaquin Miller Park, nestled in the redwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains, and even in the Davis greenbelt. Happy foraging!