The leaves of Oregon myrtle (Umbellularia californica), which I introduced yesterday, can be used in cooking interchangeably with commercial bay leaves. Oregon myrtle leaves have a similar taste to their “Old World” cousin (Laurus nobilis), but are much stronger in flavor so must be used sparingly. When replacing bay leaves with mature myrtle leaves in a recipe, only a quarter (or less) of the amount of bay leaves specified should be used. Young leaves have less of the volatile oils so may be used a little more freely. Occasionally I will cook with Oregon myrtle leaves.
Medicinally, Oregon myrtle tea was used by native tribal groups to treat stomach aches, colds and sore throats, as well as to break up mucus in the lungs. The tea was also a remedy for headaches, which is a little strange because deeply breathing the crushed leaves can cause headaches. I suppose there is a difference between inhaling the volatile oil and ingesting a tea. A poultice made from myrtle leaves was also used to treat rheumatism.
Oregon myrtle leaves are reputed to be an insect repellent and were used alone or in combination with other herbs in stored grains and clothing and in houses to deter insects.
The flesh of the fruit and the nut are both edible within narrow time windows. The outer flesh of the fruit can be eaten for a short time. When unripe the flesh is too bitter because the volatile oils are too strong. However, the fruit rapidly bruises and spoils as it ripens. So there is a very narrow time span when the flesh can be eaten.
The nuts are edible when roasted. Again, there is a very narrow window of edibility. If roasted too little, the volatile oils are too strong and if roasted too much the nuts taste bad. Oregon myrtle nuts were used as a stimulant and digestive aid. Although there is little research to support the claim, myrtle nuts supposedly stimulate the body similar to caffeine, only the effect is more short-lived.
The nuts have 40 to 60% of waxy fats that resemble cocoa butter. When properly roasted and ground, the myrtle nut powder can be mixed with water to make a drink that resembles hot chocolate. By mixing the nut powder with powdered sugar an acceptable chocolate substitute results.
Since preparing the Oregon myrtle fruit is an “art” fraught with failure, I do not bother attempting to eat the nuts or flesh. I add a leaf to my tea occasionally, not for any medicinal reasons, simply as an interesting flavoring for plain black tea.
Oregon myrtle also provides shelter and food for livestock and wildlife. Containing up to 25% protein in the spring, the leaves and twigs are browsed by livestock and black tail deer. Pigs eat the roots and fruits while birds and rodents feast on the nuts.
On the negative side, Oregon myrtle, along with tanoak, are the only two known hosts for the fungus-like pathogen (Phytophthora ramorum) that causes sudden oak death.
California laurel, myrtlewood, pepperwood, spicetree, bay laurel or whatever common name you prefer, Oregon myrtle is an interesting tree.