When I mention the California nutmeg tree to local people, I find most folks aren’t familiar with it, so this article might serve as an introduction to one of our least-known evergreen tree neighbors.
Needles to Say
California nutmeg has needles for leaves, and those needles hurt. Pines have needles in bundles, cypresses leaves are scales, and the local firs and redwoods look more like nutmeg in having single, short needles emanating along stems. Douglas fir stems have needles facing up and down and all around. Redwood and nutmeg trees have neater looking needles that just stick out the sides, along one horizontal plane. You can tell redwood and nutmeg needles apart because the latter have very sharp points. Because of the size and sharpness of the spines, nutmeg needles rival the painful jabs of blackberries and thistles.
I was taught that redwood trees were the only conifer that could have more than half of the needles singed off a tree and still survive. I was taught wrong. The 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire scorched through many acres with California nutmeg- I haven’t found one that died from the blaze. Instead, just like coast redwood, the trees are either sprouting from their bases (if severely scorched) or sprouting new leaves and branches from their trunks and limbs. As an aside, I also had a Norfolk Island pine that also burned entirely but is resprouting…so, there appear to be more fire-sprouting conifers than once was thought.
The wood of this tree is prized, but the tree is so uncommon that harvest is strictly non-commercial. The tree is not generally quick growing so it has close growth rings. And, the wood is quite different than any other wood around: it is a rich yellow-brown. I’ve heard lore that the native peoples used the wood for bows; people have mentioned to me seeing ‘bow wood trees’ where the tip of nutmeg trees have been bent over and weighted down to create a naturally curved trunk.
This species is in the yew family. Some of you know yews, whose uses you wouldn’t guess include ewes. And, you would be right (as far as I know).
Yews are common shrubs in landscapes with bright red berry-looking fruit. Nutmegs do not make bright fruit, but their fruits are substantially odd. Perhaps the term ‘California nutmeg’ comes from examining the seed: peel off the thick rind and extract the hard nut, carve it in half and you might be looking at a nutmeg nut. California nutmeg nuts are solid and resinous like the foreign nutmeg, but our local one isn’t obviously useful as food, though some suggest the nuts may have once been used as food. Don’t eat the nut, though, it is poisonous if you don’t know how to prepare it correctly.
The coating on the nut is very interesting- watery and yet resinous and quite pungent. Squeeze the nuts and you get juicy with juice that doesn’t quite want to come off of your hand.
Some of us recall the controversy of the cancer fighting medicine “Taxol” and the scare about losing the California nutmeg’s pacific northwest cousin the Pacific yew tree, Taxus brevifolia. Taxol keeps some types of cancer from spreading and was discovered in these yew-family trees. However, scientists figured out how to synthesize Taxol so we don’t have to rely on trees to make it, anymore.
When contemplating how to convince people that it is important to save species, I am advised to use examples like this where we have discovered life-saving drugs from wild plants. So, use this as an example.
Where to Find Native Nutmeg
I perused the herbarium records to let readers know where the public can go to see California nutmeg. It seems that the best places are in the Waddell Creek drainage from Rancho del Oso on up. One notable tree used to live near a waterfall in Big Basin- I wonder if is still there?
-this post originally published as part of my ongoing journalism in Bruce Bratton’s amazing weekly blog BrattonOnline.com