Umbellularia californica is a tree or erect shrub with many common names. An evergreen, it grows in the Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada of California and in the Southwest corner of Oregon. In Oregon, U. californica is usually referred to as a myrtle, while in California it is commonly called a bay. Thus depending on location, Oregon myrtle, myrtle, myrtlewood, and California bay are all common appellations for the same plant. To add to the confusion, U. californica belongs to the Laurel Family so California laurel is another name for the tree. Pepperwood and spicewood, additional colloquial names, allude to the strong odor released when the leaves are crushed. This odor is described as spicy, peppery or a camphor odor. One tree – many common names! I first identified and became acquainted with U. californica in Oregon so continue to call it Oregon myrtle, even though I now live in California.
Leonard and I often see Oregon myrtle in our travels. It grows in a wide variety of sites (serpentine soils, exposed ridges, mountain slopes and valley bottoms) below 5,200 feet. Although we are familiar with with its alternate, leathery, laceolate leaves and olive-like fruits (green at first maturing to purple). we never saw Oregon myrtle in bloom until last week while driving along Wilson Hill Road between Manton and Shigletown CA (Shasta County).
The Oregon myrtle inflorescence originates from a leaf axis and consists of clusters containing 4 to 10 flowers on a peduncle (stalk). The bisexual flowers are very interesting. They have no petals. There are six greenish-yellow sepals arranged in 2 rows of three. The sepals surround 9 stamens (male reproductive parts) that are also arranged in two rows, six in the outer row and three in the low inner row. Each of the three inner stamens has two orange glands at the base. Each stamen has four whitish anther sacs holding the pollen. The superior ovary (female reproductive organ) is central to the stamens.
In Southwestern Oregon, bowls, dishes, spoons and other small commercial articles are made from Oregon myrtle. The intricate grain of this hardwood results in beautiful items sold as myrtlewood. To add to the commercial appeal, myrtlewood is advertised as a wood that ONLY grows in Southwestern Oregon and the “holy land”. This is a bit of false advertising because myrtlewood also grows in California as far south as San Diego. Additionally, the laurel that grows in the “holy land” is a different genus, not Oregon myrtle.