Laurel Family

California Bay © DSchiel

Lauraceae (law-RAY-see-ee)

Iconic Features

  • Usually evergreen trees and shrubs
  • Aromatic leaves, bark, and roots
  • Small yellow or green flowers

Description (Jepson)

  • Magnoliids – an early lineage of flowering plants, which also includes the Magnolia family (Magnoliaceae) and Dutchman’s Pipe family (Aristolochiaceae) and is generally characterized by
    • Flower parts in threes
    • Pollen with 1 pore (vs. 3 pores of monocots and eudicots)
    • Branching-veined leaves
  • Generally evergreen trees or shrubs
  • Strongly aromatic
  • Leaves
    • Usually thick; simple (not divided into leaflets), and entire (with smooth margins)
    • Generally alternate (1 leaf at each junction with stem)
    • Strongly aromatic
  • Flowers
    • Inflorescence (flower arrangement) usually a panicle (branching stem with flowers opening from the bottom up)
      • Also may be a raceme (unbranched stem with stalked flowers opening from the bottom up), an umbel (a spoke-like flower cluster with stalks radiating from a single point), or, rarely, solitary
    • Small, usually bisexual, white, yellow, or green flowers
      • Usually 6 sepals (outer flower parts) in 2 whorls and no petals
      • Usually 9 stamens (male flower parts) in whorls of 3
    • Ovary usually superior (above the attachment of other flower parts)
  • Fruit is a berry (a usually multi-seeded fruit with a fleshy ovary wall) or a drupe (a fleshy fruit with usually 1 seed in a hard inner shell — a stone fruit)


  • Approximately 3,500 species worldwide, usually found in warm, humid subtropical to tropical climates
    • Includes avocado, cinnamon, and camphor
  • Adaptations allow the leaf to easily shed water in climates with high humidity
    • Flat and smooth-edged, with drip-point tips
  • Today only one native species of the Laurel family survives in California–the California bay (Umbellularia californica), which grows in Edgewood
    • During the early Tertiary period (around 40 million years ago, after the demise of the dinosaurs and beginning of the most recent ice age), warm, humid subtropical climates existed across a wide swath of southern North America, including much of what is now California (Millar 1996)
      • Avocado (Persea), cinnamon (Cinnamomum) and California bay (Umbellularia californica), all in the Laurel family, grew across the state, along with other subtropical and tropical plants such as ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), fig (Ficus), and treefern (Zamia)
    • During the Miocene (5 to 23 million years ago), oak-laurel forests existed in Central and Southern California
      • Many subtropical tree species from the Laurel family, including sweetwood (Nectandra), avocado (Persea), and California bay grew among ancestral oak species
  • The term “laurel forest” or “laurissilva” refers to subtropical forests characterized by broadleaf evergreens and hardwoods, such as those in the Laurel family (United Nations, 1992-2020)
    • Plants, whether or not in the Laurel family, in these forests often have lauroid (laurel-like) leaves
      • Flat, waxy, smooth-edged, dark-green leaves with drip-tips, which allow them to easily shed water
    • These forests are usually biologically diverse, with many endemic species
    • “Laurel forests” were once common 15-40 million years ago across many continents, including southern North America, southern Europe, and Northern Africa but today are now isolated, relict forests, such as those found on the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands
  • The European laurel tree, Lauras nobilis, is an ancient symbol of highest honor
    • In Greek mythology, Apollo wears a laurel wreath in honor of the river nymph Daphne, who transformed into a laurel to escape him
      • Apollo grants Daphne evergreen leaves that are resistant to decomposition as a kind of immortality
    • Romans used the laurel wreath as a symbol of victory
    • The awards baccalaureate and poet laureate and the expression “resting on one’s laurels” derive from this symbol
  • Scientific name from the included genus Laurus, from the Latin for “laurel tree”
    • Many plants in diverse families are called “bay” or “laurel” because their foliage or aroma is similar to species in this genus
  • California bay (Umbellularia californica) is the only representative of this family at Edgewood

See General References

Specific References

Millar, C. 1996. Tertiary Vegetation. Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project, Final report to Congress, Volume II, Assessments and Scientific Basis for Management Options. Wildland Resources Center Report No. 37. Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, University of California, Davis, California.

United Nations.1992-2020. Laurisilva of Madeira. UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

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