Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the April 24, 2005 Newsletter issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills somewhat east of Placerville, California, USA

This week the exciting thing was the California Laurel and the exquisite fragrance of its crushed leaves and stems.

California Laurel, UMBELLALARIA CALIFORNICA, bears narrow, simple leaves rather like a willow's, except that their margins are smooth -- without teeth. The stems are green and very similar to those of the Sassafras. That's not surprising, since Sassafras and the California Laurel both belong to the Laurel Family, the Lauraceae, along with Cinnamon Trees, Camphor Trees, and Eastern North America's Spice Bushes

Our California Laurels are smallish, densely branching trees growing in moist soil near streams on the canyon wall below us. When my friends pointed out the tree to me they said that its leaves made beans taste good. When I crushed a leaf and smelled, I wasn't prepared for the intensely fresh, nose- ticklingly spicy odor, even more intense than Sassafras. How I wish I could provide a hot-link so you could smell it.

Around here the tree may be honored more for its wood than for its spicy leaves. The wood of mature trees, sold commercially as "myrtlewood," is fairly heavy, hard, fine-grained, rich yellowish-brown to light gray, and often beautifully mottled. It's often used for gunstocks, cabinets, furniture and fancy woodenware. Sometimes the trees produce burls, or large knots on their trunks, with such intricate and unusual grain that they are sought for wood carvings.

California Laurel's distribution is fairly limited to coastal California and the Sierra Nevada foothills, southwestern Oregon and a bit of northwestern Baja California.

You can see the tree and read about it at www.laspilitas.com/plants/682.htm