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Oregon Myrtle Tree is an Oregon Coast Treasure
Oregon Coast Notes - News

myrtle_tree2The myrtle was Aphrodite's sacred tree, and in the Bible the Myrtle was said to represent fertility and life.

Oregon Myrtlewood became popular for making gift items back in the early 1900's. It is a hardwood which takes many finishes well. Oregon Coast woodworkers have developed a small cottage industry making handcrafted Myrtlewood products.

Myrtle Tree Trail: Home of Oregon's largest known Myrtle Tree.

MyrtleGroveThis tree is one of the world's largest known myrtle trees: it is approximately 88 feet tall, 42 feet in circumference, and its canopy is nearly 70 feet wide.

As you walk this 1/4 mile trail, you will see an old-growth forest which is different from others found on the Gold Beach Ranger District.
Elsewhere, you are likely to find large Douglas-fir trees with tanoak and madrone in the understory.

Here you will find myrtle trees as the predominant understory tree. This is due to many factors, including the soils, climate regeneration methods, and the myrtle trees' response to forest fires.

Umbellularia californica is a large tree native to coastal forests of California and slightly extended into Oregon
It is the sole species in the genus Umbellularia.

Its pungent leaves have a similar flavor to bay leaves (though stronger), and it may be mistaken for Bay Laurel.

In Oregon, this tree is known as Oregon Myrtle, while in California it is called California Bay Laurel, which may be shortened to California Bay or California Laurel. It has also been called Pepperwood, Spicebush, Cinnamon Bush, Peppernut Tree and Headache Tree.

Where You Will Find Oregon Myrtle

It ranges near the coast from Douglas County, Oregon south through California to San Diego County. It is also found in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It occurs at altitudes from sea level up to 1600 m.

Attributes of the Oregon Myrtle

MyrtleLeavesIt is an evergreen tree growing to 30 m tall (exceptionally 45 m) with a trunk up to 80 cm thick.

The fragrant leaves are smooth-edged and lens shaped, 3–10 cm long and 1.5–3 cm broad, similar to the related Bay Laurel though usually narrower, and without the crinkled margin of that species.

MyrtleFlowerFlowers open in late winter and early spring.

The flowers are small, yellow or yellowish-green, produced in a small umbel (hence the scientific name Umbellularia, "little umbel").

The fruit, also known as "California Bay nut", is a round and green berry 2–2.5 cm long and 2 cm broad, lightly spotted with yellow, maturing purple. Under the thin, leathery skin, it consists of an oily, fleshy covering over a single hard, thin-shelled pit, and resembles a miniature avocado. Genus Umbellularia is in fact closely related to the avocado's genus Persea, within the Lauraceae family. The fruit ripens around October-November in the native range.

Myrtlewood trees will regrow from their stump and are also grown from their seeds. They have a strong root system which helps regenerate the species in the wild. New sprouts flourish from cut stumps, windfalls, and nurse logs. They are difficult to transplant from the wild due to their deep tap root system. However nursery grown potted trees develop a more fibrous root system which can easily be repotted or transplanted at any time of year.

Oregon Myrtle's Historical Uses

MyrtlePlantUmbellularia has long been valued for its many uses by Native Americans throughout the tree's range, including the Cahuilla, Chumash, Pomo, Miwok, Yuki, Coos and Salinan people.

The leaf has been used as a cure for headache, toothache, and earache—though the volatile oils in the leaves may also cause headaches when used in excess.

Poultices of Umbellularia leaves were used to treat rheumatism and neuralgias.

Laurel leaf tea was made to treat stomach aches, colds, sore throats, and to clear up mucus in the lungs.

The leaves were steeped in hot water to make an infusion that was used to wash sores.

The Pomo and Yuki tribes of Mendocino County treated headaches by placing a single leaf in the nostril or bathing the head with a laurel leaf infusion.

Both the flesh and the inner kernel of the fruit have been used as food by Native Americans. The fatty outer flesh of the fruit, or mesocarp, is palatable raw for only a brief time when ripe; prior to this the volatile aromatic oils are too strong, and afterwards the flesh quickly becomes bruised, like that of an overripe avocado. Native Americans dried the fruits in the sun and ate only the lower third of the dried mesocarp, which is less pungent.

MyrtlenutsThe hard inner seed underneath the fleshy mesocarp, like the pit of an avocado, cleaves readily in two when its thin shell is cracked. The pit itself was traditionally roasted to a dark chocolate-brown color, removing much of the pungency and leaving a spicy flavor. Roasted, shelled "bay nuts" were eaten whole, or ground into powder and prepared as a drink which resembles unsweetened chocolate. The flavor has been described variously as "roast coffee," "burnt popcorn" or "dark chocolate". The powder might also be pressed into cakes and dried for winter storage, or used in cooking. It has been speculated that the nuts of U. californica contain a stimulant, however this possible effect has been little documented by biologists.

Oregon Myrtle's Modern Usage

The leaf is sometimes used in cooking, but is much stronger than the more commercially available Bay Laurel leaf, and should be used with caution, and in smaller quantity.

Some modern foragers and wild food enthusiasts have revived Native American practices regarding the edible fruit.

myrtlewoodUmbellularia californica is also used in woodworking. It is considered a tone-wood, used to construct the back and sides of acoustic guitars. The wood is very hard and fine, and is also made into bowls, spoons, and other small items and sold as "myrtlewood". The wood of the Oregon Myrtle has been prized for the beautiful patterns and colors it creates in the wood by drawing up minerals from the mineral rich soil of the Pacific Northwest.  The hard wood is considered appropriate for making furniture, bowls, and even musical instruments.

It is also grown as an ornamental tree, both in its native area, and elsewhere further north up the Pacific coast to Vancouver in Canada, and in western Europe. It is occasionally used for firewood.

One popular use for the leaves is to put them between the bed mattresses to get rid of, or prevent flea infestations.