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Myrtle-wood Umbellularia californica

Previously known as:

  • Oreodaphne californica
  • Tetranthera californica
Phonetic Spelling
um-BEL-ew-lah-ree-a ka-li-FORN-i-ka
Description

California bay is a medium to a large native ornamental broadleaf evergreen tree or shrub that has an upright, dense, and rounded habit. In Oregon, it is known as the Oregon myrtle.  It may grow from 30 to 75 feet tall and 30 to 75 feet wide. It tends to grow larger near water and is more shrub-like in drier areas. The leaves are dark green, shiny, lanced-shaped, and aromatic. In the spring, tiny creamy-colored fragrant flowers appear in clusters. The fruits are rounded to elliptical and green to purple drupes that ripen in the fall. The foliage, twigs, and flowers of this tree are very aromatic. It is a member of the Lauraceae or Laurel family, and it is the only species in the genus Umbellularia.

This tree is native to southwest Oregon and portions of California. It is typically found in the Pacific coastal range, the Sierra Mountains, the southern portions of California, and northwest Mexico. They are found in moist canyons and near ponds or streams. The tree was introduced as an ornamental by David Douglas in 1829.

The genus name, Umbellularia, is derived from its umbel-shaped blooms. The species name, Californica, means "of California" which references its native habitat. Many of its common names are derived from the characteristics of its leaves, fruits, or wood.

The California bay prefers full sun to partial shade. It requires moist, loamy, sandy, or clay soils with an acid to neutral pH. This tree does well in coastal forests and along stream edges. It can be trained to be a large shrub, but heavy pruning should be avoided. 

The California bay is not related to the myrtle or laurel trees of the Mediterranean. This tree's wood is typically used for woodworking commercially. The USDA recommends exercising caution if using any portion of this tree as food, seasoning, or medication because of its strong chemical properties. This tree should not be used as a source of bay leaves used in cooking.

The leaves of the California bay release pungent oils when they are crushed or torn.  Contact with the leaves may cause skin irritation in some people, and the fragrance may also cause sneezing and headaches.

This tree is enjoyed by birds and small mammals as a source of food, shelter, and habitat. Consider this tree in a park or open space for shade or screening. It may also be used on banks and slopes for soil stabilization. 

Seasons of Interest:

Bark:  Year-round   Bloom:  Spring      Foliage:  Year-round       Fruit:  Fall     

Quick ID Hints:

  • aromatic, broadleaf evergreen tree or shrub
  • mature bark reddish-brown and scaly
  • aromatic, smooth. slender twigs that are light green initially and turn grayish-brown with maturity
  • aromatic dark green, lance-shaped leaves, upper surface smooth and shiny, lower surface dull light green and smooth to sparsely hairy
  • tiny fragrant creamy-white to pale yellow flowers arranged in short-stemmed umbels of 4 to 9 flowers 
  • small round to elliptical drupe ranging in colors of green, greenish-yellow, or purple

Insects, Diseases, and Other Plant Problems: The California bay has no serious insect problems.  Beetle borers, leaf blotch miner, thrips, and cushion scale may be seen. It is the primary host of a fungus that causes a disease known as Sudden Oak Death.  Armillaria or Honey fungus, anthracnose, and white mottled rot may also occur. This tree is also susceptible to wind and snow damage in its native habitat due to severe wind and rainstorms. 

VIDEO created by Ryan Contreras for “Landscape Plant Materials I:  Deciduous Hardwoods and Conifers or Landscape Plant Materials II:  Spring Flowering Trees and Shrubs” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University

Profile Video:
See this plant in the following landscape:
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • Umbellularia californica var. californica
  • Umbellularia californica var. fresnensis
Umbellularia californica var. californica, Umbellularia californica var. fresnensis
Tags:
#shade tree#fragrant flowers#shrub#native tree#fragrant leaves#broadleaf evergreen#spring flowers#slopes#riparian#flowering tree#pond margins#salt spray tolerant#deer resistant#cream flowers#drupes#fruits fall#rounded#screening#evergreen tree#pond edge#contact dermatitis#fall color#landscape plant sleuths course
 
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • Umbellularia californica var. californica
  • Umbellularia californica var. fresnensis
Umbellularia californica var. californica, Umbellularia californica var. fresnensis
Tags:
#shade tree#fragrant flowers#shrub#native tree#fragrant leaves#broadleaf evergreen#spring flowers#slopes#riparian#flowering tree#pond margins#salt spray tolerant#deer resistant#cream flowers#drupes#fruits fall#rounded#screening#evergreen tree#pond edge#contact dermatitis#fall color#landscape plant sleuths course
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Umbellularia
    Species:
    californica
    Family:
    Lauraceae
    Uses (Ethnobotany):
    Native Americans used portions of the tree for medicinal purposes to treat poison oak dermatitis. It has also been used as an insecticide to repel fleas. The wood is very hard and is used for cabinets, veneer for furniture, interior trim, and woodenware.
    Life Cycle:
    Woody
    Recommended Propagation Strategy:
    Seed
    Stem Cutting
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    Southwest Oregon to Mexico
    Distribution:
    California, Mexico Northwest, and Oregon
    Wildlife Value:
    Insects are attracted to the blooms and aid in pollination. Birds, squirrels, and mice feed on the seeds and use the tree for shelter. In the early spring, deer and goats may eat the young sprouts when the leaves are less aromatic.
    Play Value:
    Attractive Flowers
    Fragrance
    Screening
    Shade
    Wildlife Cover/Habitat
    Wildlife Food Source
    Wildlife Larval Host
    Particularly Resistant To (Insects/Diseases/Other Problems):
    Verticillium
    Edibility:
    The leaves, seeds, and wood have strong chemical properties. Exercise caution if any part of this tree is used for food, seasoning, or medicinal purposes.
    Dimensions:
    Height: 30 ft. 0 in. - 75 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 30 ft. 0 in. - 75 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Shrub
    Tree
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Broadleaf Evergreen
    Habit/Form:
    Dense
    Erect
    Rounded
    Growth Rate:
    Medium
    Maintenance:
    Low
    Texture:
    Medium
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
    Soil Texture:
    Clay
    Loam (Silt)
    Sand
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Neutral (6.0-8.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Available Space To Plant:
    24-60 feet
    more than 60 feet
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    7b, 7a, 8b, 8a, 9b, 9a
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Green
    Purple/Lavender
    Fruit Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Fall
    Fruit Type:
    Drupe
    Fruit Length:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Width:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Description:
    Each umbel has one to three fruit sets. The fruit is usually a solitary drupe that measures 0.75 inches in diameter and contains a single nutlike seed. The drupe may be elliptical to round, and it is initially green then changes in color from yellowish-green to purple. The drupes ripen in the fall.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Cream/Tan
    Gold/Yellow
    White
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Umbel
    Flower Value To Gardener:
    Fragrant
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Spring
    Flower Size:
    < 1 inch
    Flower Description:
    The flowers are clusters of fragrant creamy white or pale-yellow blooms that appear in the early spring from April to May. They bloom profusely and continue intermittently for several months. The flowers are 0.6 inches in diameter and grow on short-stemmed umbels. Each umbel has four to nine flowers.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Broadleaf Evergreen
    Leaf Color:
    Green
    Leaf Feel:
    Leathery
    Leaf Value To Gardener:
    Fragrant
    Leaf Type:
    Simple
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Alternate
    Leaf Shape:
    Elliptical
    Lanceolate
    Oblong
    Leaf Margin:
    Entire
    Hairs Present:
    Yes
    Leaf Length:
    1-3 inches
    Leaf Width:
    < 1 inch
    Leaf Description:
    The leaves are dark green, aromatic, leathery, and measure 1 to 4 inches long and 0.5 to 1-inch wide. They are alternate and lanceolate to narrowly oblong to elliptical. The base and apex are pointed, and the margins are entire. The upper surface is shiny, smooth, and darker green. The undersides are dull, smooth to sparsely hairy, and lighter green.
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Dark Brown
    Light Brown
    Light Gray
    Red/Burgundy
    Surface/Attachment:
    Scaly
    Smooth
    Bark Description:
    The young bark is smooth, thin, and grayish-brown. As the tree matures the bark becomes scaly and reddish-brown.
  • Stem:
    Stem Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Gray/Silver
    Green
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    Yes
    Stem Cross Section:
    Round
    Stem Surface:
    Smooth (glabrous)
    Stem Description:
    The twigs are aromatic, round, slender, and smooth. They are light green and transition to grayish-brown with age.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Coastal
    Pond
    Riparian
    Slope/Bank
    Design Feature:
    Flowering Tree
    Screen/Privacy
    Shade Tree
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Deer
    Salt
    Problems:
    Contact Dermatitis