Michael Ellis: Ancient Trees

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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.

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Native Americans ate the pit of the bay fruit. Uncooked seeds are very acerbic so they roasted them to eliminate the bitterness. Then they either ate the cooked seeds directly or made them into cakes for later use. They also placed bay leaves in their nostril or bound them tightly to their heads. The pungent oils allegedly cured headaches. My experience is that sniffing these leaves can give you a headache! The leaves could also cure rheumatism, stomach aches, colds and even repel fleas.

Most of the bay leaves that we use to flavor soups and sauces come from the European bay. However, the upstart California bay is rapidly supplanting the Old World bay. At my corner market a small jar of 20 premium, California bay leaves cost over five bucks. How sad that we feel more comfortable using leaves purchased in a bottle than those picked from the trees growing in our backyard. Oh well.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective

Michael Ellis is a naturalist living in Santa Rosa.