– another regular post reprinted from my weekly column with Bruce Bratton’s brattononline.com
With their shiny, fragrant leaves and pale-yellow flowers, bay laurel trees (or just ‘bay trees’) grace our forests and are a tree worth recognizing…there’s nothing with which to confuse them. If you’ve been following this column, you’ll note that I encourage you to learn at least the trees in our area. There really aren’t that many types of trees, say compared to the 80 tree species I had to learn in my 8th grade biology class in Georgia where the forests are much more tree diverse. And “back east,” most of the trees lose their leaves so you have to learn subtle bark characteristics for half of the year. Bay trees are particularly easy if only from the scent of their leaves. Still, I find many people don’t rely on their nose to identify plants- a lost opportunity. Learning to identify trees, and paying attention to the trees around you, is a gateway into ‘seeing nature’ and being more present with the world around you. Through the distribution of trees, you’ll come to better understand wildlife, soils, hydrology, and so much more.
Spot the Bay
To find them, aim for the darkest part of the forest and there you’ll find a bay tree. These evergreen trees cast deep shade, and little grows under them. Wind rustling through long, thin, waxy leaves of bay trees sounds like rain. Walking on the cast-off leaves under a tree can be slippery. With age, the leaves are often covered with black mildew, but without that the fallen leaves are ochre, fading to a light tan-brown. Please don’t pass up a tree without gathering some leaves and sniffing them: no matter how many times I do it, I never regret it. With some practice, maybe you can conjure the scent even without smelling the leaves.
On warm days, when trees are in full bloom, the sweet perfume from the flowers carries a long way with a citrus blossom aroma with a slight hint of cinnamon. They are starting to bloom right now. I saw some new blossoms in Hageman Gulch adjacent to Arana Gulch recently. Spent flowers litter the ground as they drop off. You might still find bits and pieces of the last part of the fruit right now, too.
Where to Find Them
Some say that Swanton’s Scott Creek valley once had stands of magnificently large bay laurels and the few large remaining ones burned in the recent fire and are now resprouting. Pogonip Greenbelt as well as Wilder Ranch and Nisene Marks State Parks have stands of bay trees along many of the trails. The last ones I encountered were on moist north-facing slopes in western Wilder Ranch growing alongside live oaks; the bays and oaks there were in process of succumbing to competition with conifers, towering above them. The places bay trees thrive is where fire returns from time to time.
Bay trees erupt in flames during a wildfire, and then sprout quickly back after the fire from their basal burl. One day, if you are enjoying a campfire, throw a few bay leaves on it to enliven the party. The leaves pop and crackle loudly, sending out sparks – evidence of the oils in the leaves. After our 2020 fire, bay trees were sprouting up two-foot-tall tender shoots a couple months after the fire. You often see bay trees with many trunks- probably because of the survival of more than one of those post-fire sprouts. The sprouting nature of bay trees allows them to leap up above the competing vegetation and to send out fruit in just a year or two after a fire, providing seedlings a better chance of establishment. But the seeds are a coveted cache.
Squirrels, pack rats, mice, and jays love to eat bay “nuts,” which are also been popular with certain people. Although bay trees are relatives of avocados, and the fruit looks like a little avocado, there isn’t much flesh, which is only edible for a brief moment when ripe. The ripe fruit can be bright green or a deep purple. The nut is a better bet than the thin skin for eating, but you must roast it first. It is oily and if roasted just right tastes a bit like a roasted cocoa bean. Some people say they feel a bit wired after eating a few. No one I know has liked them so much that they repeatedly go to the effort of processing them, though native peoples are noted to have eaten them.
After I led a barefoot friend of mine into a stand of chestnuts for a harvest (ouch!), he got even with me a year later with a bay leaf. We were hiking through a local forest, and he noted that I sounded congested, but I was in luck- he had a remedy close at hand! He handed me a bay leaf and told me to roll it up like a tube, put it in my stopped up nose and breathe in through it deeply. And so, I did. I was able to remain standing, but just barely. At first, it felt like someone had punched me hard in the nose. The burning sensation spreading deep into my sinuses wouldn’t go away quick enough. I do not recommend this kind of medicine, not even as a practical joke. But there might be ways of inhaling the leaf scent with less vigor, which might be a treatment for congestion. Native peoples used the leaves for treatment of arthritis and for clearing fleas out of houses. Wood rats also use the leaves to get rid of insects in their houses.
Life on the Bay
I first learned bay trees not only by their leaf scent but also by their shelf fungus. There’s a shelf fungus that is on almost all older bay trees. This is called Ganoderma brownii and it is tough like wood. The top of it is often the same color as the bay tree’s bark- a dark brown, though sometimes it is lighter. The underside is white to cream.
Sudden Oak Death
Bay trees have gotten a bad rap as of late as they are hosts to an invasive pathogenic organism named sudden oak death. Local evergreen oaks growing under and adjacent to bay trees are threatened by a heavy rain of sudden oak death spores of falling off bay tree leaves. If you have a stand of these oaks that you want to save, it is suggested you cut out the bay trees that grow right next to them or above them. But, if you are considering cutting them down, you might want first to contact a woodworker.
Bay laurel trees’ light to very dark wood is very beautiful and is used for furniture and musical instruments. Some people call it myrtle wood or Oregon myrtle. I haven’t encountered recent furniture made with it, but I once saw a hundred-year-old chest of drawers made from bay wood which looked like it had been made from American chestnut. After writing that, I looked on the internet and see that there are hundreds of very fine pieces of craftsperson- made furniture and musical instruments made with bay tree wood. Sometimes, I see that people use the burl wood for an extra dashing look.
Our forests would not be the same without bay trees, but I haven’t anyone restoring or planting the species in their landscapes. If you have a place for one, for the shade or for a privacy screen, you might consider planting one. Generally, it isn’t the fastest growing tree- maybe two feet a year at first but settling into one foot a year as it matures. If you keep the branches limbed up high off the ground, they might even help with the fire hazard. Bay trees serve well as part of a ‘shaded fuel break’ that is low maintenance because they suppress understory growth, reducing the need for mowing or shrub clearing. Plus, you’ll be creating food for wildlife for generations to come, and maybe a fine wood source for future craftspeople.