Michael Ellis has this Perspective on a Bay Area tree with an ancient history.
Millions of years ago a tropical forest flourished throughout California. Rainfall exceeded 80 inches per year and both temperature and humidity were high. Large broad-leaved evergreen trees dominated a landscape interspersed with conifers.
Slowly the climate became drier and cooler and most of the tropical plants retreated to coastal areas or south toward the equator. Eventually nearly all the tropical plants died out. In the Bay Area we are left with two reminders of those ancient times-- the Coast redwood and the bay tree.
The bay tree has many common names – California laurel, bay laurel, pepperwood, and Oregon myrtle. It belongs to the Laurel family which is characterized by aromatic oil glands in the leaves. Many economically important plants such as camphor, sassafras, cinnamon and avocado are in
this plant family.
Bay trees now grow in cool wooded canyons and valleys in the Coast ranges and in the foothills of the western Sierra Nevada. In Oregon, bay trees reach their greatest size. The hard durable lumber of these magnificent trees is sold as Oregon myrtle and fashioned into lampshades, bowls, and other curios.