Herb - California Bay
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Umbellularia californica
Herb - California Bay

Uses: Leaves, fruit, nut
Acquired: 2003
How started: Seedling
Source: Woodland Park, Seattle, WA

California Bay is also known as Oregon Myrtle. The scent of the leaves is wonderful, reminding me of the fruity, spicey scent of Dr. Pepper. The leaves are used in place of true bay leaves in all kinds of recipes, but by comparison California Bay leaves add a stronger flavor to dishes. Note that the oil in the leaves is toxic for some people.

It is not well known that the fruit and nut of this tree are also edible. I learned of this secret through foraging friends and from a USDA publication [1]:

"Both the flesh and the inner kernel of the olive-like fruit were used as food. The fruits were sun dried until the fleshy outer part had split and loosened from the pit (Goodrich et al. 1980). The dried flesh was removed from the seeds ready to eat. Only the bottom third of the outer dried fruit was eaten as the upper, thinner part contains a higher concentration of the acrid oil that is a component of all parts of the tree (Chestnut 1902). The seeds were roasted until they were crisp and brown (Goodrich et al. 1980). The roasting removes much of the pungency and leaves just a hint of acridity and gives the roasted nuts a spicy or coffee-like flavor. The parched nuts are then shelled and either eaten whole or pounded into a meal. The oily meal is easily pressed into small cakes that are then sun-dried and stored for use in the winter. Both the nuts and the cakes were served with clover, seaweed, buckeye meal, or acorn meal and mush. The roasted seeds were eaten as an accompaniment with clover in order to prevent bloating (Murphey 1959). The seed meal was also made into a beverage that tasted “like chocolate” (Kelly 1978)."

I started my tree from nuts collected in the playground area just outside the north entrance to Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. The mother tree is at least 20 feet tall. My seedling is planted in the shade and is slow growing. After 10 seasons of growth, it is only 2 feet tall. It has survived a short stretch of freezing weather down to 5'F. It is growing in poor soil in the shade. I think it would do better in a warmer location of my garden. I will leave it where it is because I can harvest a few leaves a year from it as a small bush, and that's fine with me.

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