As I sipped a cup of Oregon myrtle (Umbellularia californica) tea, I realized that this tree, native to California and Oregon, was worthy of a post.
Oregon myrtle, the only species in the genus Umbellularia, is an interesting tree possessing almost as many common names as it does different forms. To Oregonians, it is known as Oregon myrtle, myrtle, or myrtlewood. As one crosses into California the common name becomes California laurel. Strictly speaking, U. californica is neither a myrtle or laurel, although it does belong to the laurel family of trees.
Like the “Old World” laurel or bay (Laurus nobilis) which was used to crown ancient victors and is now used as a culinary spice, Oregon myrtle has aromatic evergreen leaves. Hence other folk names include green baytree, spicetree, pepperwood, bay laurel and mountain laurel (not the mountain laurel that is the state flower of Pennsylvania).
Because the fruits are thought to resemble olives, California olive is another name by which Oregon myrtle is know. Talk about confusing!
The way Oregon myrtle develops depends on its environment. The trees found on sere (dry) hillsides are generally smaller with yellower leaves. In areas with rich soils and plenty of water, Oregon myrtle grows larger with greener leaves. Upon the sea bluffs which are forever swept by salt winds, the myrtle becomes almost prostrate, while on windswept hills further inland it is almost a shrub. A dwarf form, twiggy and intricately twisted inhabits the chaparral. At first glance it sometimes is difficult to identify all these shapes as Oregon myrtle.
Oregon myrtle leaves are thick, leathery, and lance-shaped with smooth margins. Two to five inches long, the leaves have a shiny green upper surface and a dull, paler underside. A light yellow midrib and meshed veinlets mark the leaf surfaces. The leaves contain 7.5% of a volatile oil and their strong scent, particularly when crushed, can be overwhelming and cause sneezing, headaches or even dizziness if breathed too deeply. I like the aroma, but am careful about inhaling. The fruits, also aromatic, are about an inch long and olive-like. They occur in clusters of two or three on drooping stalks in the axis of leaves. When cut open the fruits have yellow-green flesh and a large, light brown seed and resemble miniature avocados.
Oregon myrtle wood is hard, firm, fine-grained and heavy. The heartwood is a light brown and often mottled while the sapwood is even paler and streaked. Occasionally the wood is a beautiful pale gray. Formerly the lumber was used for shipbuilding, furniture and interior finish. Today in Southwestern Oregon “myrtlewood” is turned to make beautiful plates, bowls, candlesticks, gavels, platters, trays and similar items for sale as a local craft product and as tourist souvenirs.
These pictures are of Oregon myrtle branches I collected in Myrtle Point OR and brought home to use for tea. I take one leaf, crease it once or twice and steep with ordinary black tea. The resultant tea has a mild, pleasant scent and a delicate “laurel” taste. (Sorry, I cannot describe “tastes”.) Do not get aggressive about crushing the leaf before steeping or the result will smell and taste too strong.
Tomorrow I will mention other culinary and medicinal uses of Oregon myrtle.