California Bay

California Bay © DSchiel

Bay Laurel, Oregon Myrtle, Peppernut
Umbellularia californica

Description (Jepson,

  • Magnoliid
    • Magnoliids are an early lineage of flowering plants; see family for general characteristics
  • Laurel Family (Lauraceae)
  • Only species in its genus
  • Evergreen tree or shrub
  • Leaves
    • Smooth-edged blade, ending in a point
    • Upper surface shiny bright green; underside dull green
    • Distinct yellow midvein
    • Aromatic
  • Flowers
    • Inflorescence (flower arrangement) is an umbel (a spoke-like flower cluster with stalks radiating from a single point) of 6-10 fragrant small yellow or yellowish-green flowers
    • Apparent petals are sepals (usually green, outer flower parts)
    • Inner stamens (male flower parts) bear orange nectary glands
    • Ovary superior (above the attachment of other flower parts)
  • Fruit is a green, spotted drupe (a fleshy fruit with usually 1 seed in a hard inner shell – a stone fruit), which matures to deep purple
  • Height to 148 ft.
  • Lifespan may exceed 200 years


  • Native to California
    • Grows in a wide variety of habitats, including chaparral, foothill woodland, conifer forests, mixed evergreen forests, and wetland-riparian areas
    • See Calflora for statewide observations of this plant
  • Outside California, grows slightly beyond California into Oregon
  • Grows at elevations to 5,250 ft.

Uses (San Mateo County Parks prohibits removal of any natural material)

  • Wildlife
    • Blooms during winter, providing an early pollen and nectar source
    • Dusky-footed woodrats (Neotoma fuscipes annectens), as well as a variety of squirrels, mice, and birds eat the fruit
    • Deer browse on leaves, which are high in protein
    • Dusky-footed woodrats do not eat the leaves, but collect leafy twigs for their stick houses
      • Leaves deter ectoparasites (fleas, etc.)
      • Twigs dropped for later collection can sometimes be found on trails and will have a clean 45° angle cut
  • Native people
    • Ate the fruit (peppernuts)
      • Flesh of ripe fruit was eaten raw
      • Seed was roasted then pounded into a meal to be added to cereal flours for breads or pressed into cakes, dried and stored for winter use
        • Roasting removed much of the bitterness, leaving a nutty, coffee-like flavor
        • Acted as a mild stimulant
      • Unsweetened, chocolate-like drink was made from roasted whole or ground seeds
    • Used the leaves
      • Crushed as a condiment to season cooked foods
      • Medicinally
        • To treat respiratory ailments, toothaches, and rheumatism
        • As a tea to treat sore throats and stomach aches
        • Placed in a nostril to treat headaches
      • Spread on floors to deter insects
    • Used the shoots to make harpoons and spears (Anderson 2005)
  • Leaves can be used like the culinary bay leaf (Laurus nobilis), but California bay leaves are twice as strong
    • Wash leaves carefully before using to remove sooty molds
  • Considered a desirable wood for making bowls and spoons and a good tone wood for acoustic guitars and lutes
  • CAUTION – pungent aroma of leaves may cause headache (another name for the California bay is “headache tree”); leaves may cause dermatitis

Name Derivation

  • Umbellularia (um-BEL-ew-lah-ree-a) – from the Latin umbella, “a parasol,” for the umbrella-like form of the flower clusters
  • Bay – from the resemblance of the foliage and aroma to the culinary bay leaf of the Mediterranean species Laurus nobilis
    • The word “bay” is a common name for laurels and does not refer to the Bay Area
Flowers with Nectaries (L), Developing Fruit (M), Seed (R)
© DSchiel


  • Adapted to a wide variety of California habitats
    • Can grow in large stands of tall (well over 100 ft.) trees in fertile valleys and sparsely as a shrub on serpentine outcrops (Axelrod 1980)
  • Can create large clonal clusters, especially after disturbance
  • Survives from an ancient evolutionary lineage
    • California bay is the sole remaining native species from the Laurel family in California
    • Learn more about this family’s extensive statewide presence in the past on the Laurel Family page
  • Releases terpenes (allelochemicals) that limit understory vegetation
  • Pollinated by small insects
  • Host to the fungus-like microorganism Phytophthora ramorum, which causes Sudden Oak Death (SOD)
    • At Edgewood, the 2 species known to be susceptible to SOD are coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia var. agrifolia) and Pacific madrone saplings (Arbutus menziesii)
    • For a complete list of known hosts and host associates see USDA Risk Analysis for Phytophthora ramorum, pp.6-9

ID Tips

  • May also be confused at Edgewood with other evergreen trees/shrubs with similar leaves
  • Check out this short video (Jepson 2018) for more ID tips
California CoffeeberryToyonPacific MadroneCalifornia Bay
Growth Habitshrubshrub / treetreetree
Height≤ 15 ft.≤ 30 ft.≤ 130 ft.≤ 148 ft.
    Margin (Edge)smooth or finely toothedserratedsmoothsmooth
California Coffeeberry (L), Toyon (LM), Pacific Madrone (RM), California Bay (R) © DSchiel

At Edgewood

  • Found in woodlands, especially in ravines and on north-facing slopes
    • The grove on the Serpentine trail, between trail markers 11-16, shows how terpenes in the leaf litter limit the growth of competing understory vegetation
    • See iNaturalist for observations of this plant
  • Flowers November – May

See General References

Specific References

Anderson, M.K. 2005. Tending the Wild. University of California, Berkeley.

Axelrod, D. 1980, Dec. Contributions to the Neogene Paleobotany of Central California 121: 112. University of California Publications in Geological Sciences.

Howard, J.L. 1992. Umbellularia californica. Fire Effects Information System. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.

Immel, D.L. 2018. California Laurel Umbellularia californica (Hook. & Arn.) Nutt. Plant Guide. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Plant Data Center c/o Environmental Horticulture Department, University of California, Davis, California.

Jepson Herbarium. 2018, Feb. 2. Umbellularia californica (California bay) [Video]. The Jepson Videos: Visual Guide to the Plants of California. The Regents of the University of California. YouTube.