Whenever possible we like to replace store-bought food with what we can grow ourselves. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out for one reason or another, but one homegrown success is Umbellularia californica, otherwise known as California bay or Oregon myrtle. The bay leaves sold in the spice department of grocery stores come from a tree, Laurus nobilis, which, like many of the spices that we’ve come to depend on for flavoring our food, doesn’t grow in colder northern climates.
The Virginia Tech tree ID page shows its native range as a narrow strip of coastal California into southern Oregon, with a scattering in the Sierra Nevada foothills. But after a little research into the hardiness potential for our area (we do get the occasional frigid blasts of near zero temps) we decided to buy a couple starter plants from Burnt Ridge Nursery located near Mt. St. Helens.
So far they’ve come through a typical winter just fine, and have put on enough new growth that I was able to harvest some leaves to use in pickled pepper brine. One thing to note about this species is that the volatile oils that make the leaves so aromatic are much more potent than in store bought leaves, so it is important to use less or end up with inedible food (as detailed in this informative article.)
There are also ethnobotanical uses for this plant, including headache remedy (and headache-inducer if overindulged in) but we haven’t experimented in that area yet. The efficacy as a pest repellent would be handy, given the expense of flea repellents for the dog & cat contingent of Seven Trees. And if we are lucky enough to get ‘bay nuts’, we’ll enjoy trying them as a culinary treat too.
This evergreen plant has the potential to reach 100ft tall, but since we are far north of its native range, and have planted them in a less than ideal location (partial sun along a back fence) we’ll be happy to end up with thriving shrubbery.