Information about Myrtle Wood


Excerpt from Manual of Oregon Trees and Shrubs by William R. Randall

California Laurel.

NOTE: Umbellularia ‘ is a monotypic genus and the features are described under the species.
Oregon-Myrtle California laurel
Habit: Large, evergreen trees 60′ – 100′ tall and 2′ – 5′ in diameter, with aromatic foliage; multiple-stemmed when growing in the open, and with a dome-shaped crown; or a prostrate to erect shrub up to 151 high.

Leaves: Persistent, alternate, simple, aromatic, 2-1/2″ – 5-1/2″ long and up to 1″ wide, elliptical to oblong-lanceolate; dark green, glabrous and shiny above, paler and smooth below; margins entire; apex acute, base broadly acute to round; petiole round, yellow green, 1/2″ – 3/41′ long.

Flowers: Monoecious, inconspicuous, light yellow-green.

Fruit: Bluish black, olive-like drupe, about ¾ 1’ in diameter; seed large.

Twigs: Round, slender, light green and glabrous, eventually becoming grayish brown.

Bark. On young trees smooth and dull grayish brown; on old trees thin, dark reddish brown and scaly.

Habitat & Range: Found on moist, well-drained sites in the sun or shade, on bottomlands, hillsides and mountain slopes; from southwestern Oregon southward in the Sierra and Coast Ranges to southern California.

Uses: Turnery items, novelties, veneer, furniture, cabinetwork, keel blocks and friction blocks.

Remarks: Tolerant to very tolerant. Vigorous sprouter. Occurs in pure stands or associated with big leaf maple, red alder, tanoak, madrone, California sycamore and Douglas-fir, also with the chaparral species in the Sierra Mountains.

The aromatic leaves and volatile oils will irritate the tender membranes of the eyes and nose.

The burls and wood of this species exhibit the greatest range in color and figure of any of the American woods.

Contrary to what is claimed by some individuals, this is not the same species that grows in the Holy Land.

Native Trees of the San Francisco Bay Region by Woodbridge Metcalf

This is a large family of trees and shrubs, mostly the alternate, simple, and aromatic leaves, and berry-like fruits, some of which are edible. It includes the Grecian Laurel (Laurus n6bilis), famed history as a symbol of victory; Camphor Tree (Cinnamomum camph6ra), commonly used as a street tree in the bay region; and the edible Avocado (Persea Americana).

California Laurel (Umbellularia calif6rnica) This tree is also known as Pepperwood, Bay Tree, Oregon Myrtle. The California Laurel is highly variable in size. The wood is heavy, hard, fine-grained, and exceedingly strong. In Oregon there is industry making bowls, lampstands, and other souvenirs from selected, finely figured burls of laurel.

The leaves, like those of the Grecian Laurel, are often used to give flavor in cooking. Leaves, flowers, and fruit: Its entire, leathery, dark green leaves, 3 to 5 inches long, have entire margins, wedge-shaped bases, and short-pointed tips. They are alternate in arrangement, shiny above, dull beneath, and when crushed have a strong, peppery aromatic fragrance that is their most notable characteristic. The tiny, clustered, yellow-green flowers bloom in winter or early spring and ripen into oval fruits resembling the olive, the thin flesh turning from green to purple and becoming succulent when mature.

Range: It is very widely distributed throughout this entire region, from streamsides and fertile valleys where it reaches massive proportions to rocky ridges exposed to severe ocean winds where it is shrubby and only a few feet in height.

OREGON MYRTLE, Umbellularia californica (Hooker & Arnott)

COMMON NAMES IN USE: California Laurel, Mountain Laurel, California Bay Tree, Myrtle Tree, California Olive, Myrtle, Spice Tree, Laurel, California Sassafras, Pepperwood, Yellow Myrtle, Black Myrtle, White Myrtle, Bay, Bay Laurel.

GENERAL RANGE: Southwestern Oregon; California west of the Sierras.

OREGON: Southwestern part of the state, from about Roseburg southward to the California line and westward to the coast. Most abundant in Coast Range Mountains; scattered elsewhere.

HABITAT: Borders and vicinity of higher foothill streams, spring-watered gulches, lower mountain slopes and canyons. In northern part of its range it occurs from sea level to about 1500 feet elevation; in the southern part it reaches an altitude of 2000 to 4000 feet. Very tolerant of shade. Largest in northern part of its range; smaller south of Siskiyou Mountains. Forms dense clumps and small patches (as a shrubby tree), or is scattered singly and in groups (as a larger tree) with Bigleaf Maple, California Sycamore, Red Alder, White Alder, Tan Oak and Canyon Live Oak.

LEAVES, FRUIT AND WOOD: Mature LEAVES, evergreen, simple, alternate, 3″ to 6″ long and about Y3 as wide, dark shiny green above, dull and paler below, smooth on both sides, long and narrow in shape, with wedge-like base and gradually pointed tip, edges without teeth. Both leaves and bark have a camphor-like odor when bruised. FRUIT, olivelike, pale yellow when ripe, about 1″ long, in small shortstalked clusters. WOOD, rich yellowish-brown, often beautifully mottled, very heavy when green, moderately heavy when dry, hard, firm, fine grained; no other of our hardwoods excels it in beautiful grain when finished; of great commercial value as a cabinet and finishing wood, but amount limited.

The Oregon Myrtle is the only representative in our area of a family that grows almost entirely in the tropical or semi-tropical regions, and one does indeed have a feeling that the tree is a spill-over and somewhat out, of place in our northern vegetation, especially when he sniffs the camphor like odor that permeates the leaves and bark.

The writer wishes to make it clear that the Oregon myrtle, Umbellularia californica of the family Lauraceae, is not to be confused with the Myrtle Tree, Myrtus communes of the family Myrtaceae, of the Holy Land and the Mediterranean region generally. The former becomes a large forest tree over 100 feet in height, while the latter is seldom more than a shrub. The main resemblance is in the leaves, in both appearance and aromatic odor. The Oregon myrtle is found only in southwestern Oregon and in California, and not in Asia, as persistently reported.

Along the Roseburg-Coquille Highway, the Myrtle is a common sight on all the rolling hillsides, in the old pastures and along the streams. It stands conspicuous against the slopes, its dense rounded tops looking like plump pincushions. The writer was surprised to find it, in a shrubby form, on the dry northern slopes of the Siskiyous, in the vicinity of Waldo, growing in mixture with pine, fir and manzanita. From its appearance it seemed unhappy and out of place, for it is ordinarily found close to water along stream bottoms. It has been reported as far east as Ashland.

Along streams in canyons and gulches it is a many stemmed shrub only 10 or I5 feet high, but under forest conditions it often becomes a tall tree, from 6o to 100 feet high and from 24 to 36 inches in diameter. About 10 miles south of Myrtle Point, on the South Fork of the Coquille River, there is a grove of exceptionally large trees, many of which are 100 feet high and 3 feet through, and still larger trees have been reported from Curry County. The Myrtle is a slow growing tree; specimens 2 feet in diameter are about 200 years old.


OCCURRENCE: Low mountain canyons, dry or intermittent watercourses, desert gulches, and near rocky streams; in dry, gravelly soil. Scattered singly and in small grouped groves.
CLIMATIC CONDITIONS. -Similar to those of white alder.
TOLERANCE. -Undetermined, but trees show marked tolerance of shade.
REPRODUCTION. -Abundant seeder. Germination, except in constantly moist tardy; seedlings rather sparse.
Family :A small family (as represented in our forests) of trees characterized by pungent, aromatic taste and odor of their bruised green bark and foliage. It includes the widely known camphor and bay trees of the Old World, our well-known eastern sassafras tree, and a group of ” loblolly ” bay trees of our southern forests, together with a single genus In the Pacific region. The foliage of some of these species is evergreen, whereas that of others is shed each autumn. The leaves of some are borne singly, those of others in pairs one leaf opposite another. In some species the flowers combine both male and female organs, while in others male and female flowers are each borne on different trees. Fruits of our representatives are berry or plum like. The wood of these trees, often hard and beautifully marked, is mainly of only minor commercial importance. Economically, the camphor trees are the most valuable of the group, all parts of the trees yielding camphor.

UMBELLULARIA LAUREL.:Since this genus is represented by a single species only, inhabiting the Pacific forests, its characteristics are given under that species.
California Laurel; Oregon Myrtle.
Umbellularia californica (Hook. and Arnott) Nuttall.
DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS: California laurel is an evergreen tree, distinguished at once from all others of its range by the strong camphoric-pungent odor of its crushed leaves or green bark. Under the most favorable growth conditions, from 60 to 80 feet high and from 2 to 3 feet in diameter; exceptionally large trees are sometimes 4 feet through. In the dense forest it has a clean, straight trunk from 30 to 40 feet long and a narrow crown of close, small, upright branches. Elsewhere, however, and much more commonly, it has a very short, thick trunk, surmounted by large, long limbs which trend upward and form an exceedingly wide, dense, rounded crown. In moist shaded mountain canyons and gulches it appears in a many-stemmed shrubby form in clumps and thickets from 10 to 15 feet high. Bark of large trunks is thin, very dark reddish-brown, and scaly’; the stems of young trees are smooth, and dull grayish-brown. New leaves are produced throughout the summer on the stems, which grow constantly in height. This results in the branches being heavily foliaged. As a rule the leaves of a season’s growth persist on the branches for about two years, but frequently some of them are retained for five or six years. When mature they are shiny, smooth, deep yellow-green, about 3 to nearly 6 inches long and from 1/3 inch to 1 5/8 inches wide. The yellowish green fruit resembling and olive has a thin leathery fleshy covering which contains a large thin shelled seed. The fruits mature in one season, are ripe during October, when they fall. They germinate shortly afterwards. They are frequently washed down mountain streams, and in this way a dense cover is extended along many narrow gulches, in which, in the otherwise dry foothills, grateful springs are thus maintained. Wood, very heavy when green, moderately heavy when dry, hard, very firm, fine grained, and rich yellowish brown, often beautifully mottled; the sapwood is very thick. No other of our hardwoods excels it in beautiful grain when finished. It is a most valuable cabinet and finishing wood. Well known for this excellent quality in the rather limited region of commercial supply, where the tree deserves conservative treatment as a timber tree.

The green bark and, particularly, the leaves possess a light volatile oil, follicles of which are given off when either Is crushed, and which when inhaled through the nose produces severe pain over the eyes, attended often by violent sneezing. Continued inhalation of the odor of fresh leaves usually produces slight dizziness, but apparently no other alarming effects. The dried leaves produce the same effect, but less violently.

A Natural History of Western Trees by Donald Culross Peattie

The many folk names of this tree tell a tale of the vivid impression it has made on the generations that have known it. To the Oregonians it is Oregon Myrtle, to the Californians it is California Laurel; though not strictly speaking either a Myrtle or a Laurel, it is at least in the laurel family and, like the classical laurel or Bay with which ancient victors and poets were crowned, it has a spicily aromatic and evergreen leaf. Hence the name of Green Baytree, Spice tree, and Pepperwood. The little dark fruits are shaped like an olive; the market at present so it has been called California Olive.

Grand old trees have the noble stature of Oaks, and are surmised to be 200 and 300 years old. Young trees have all the elegant, formal charm of the true Laurel or Bay. The leaves are dark as some Magnolia’s, yet graceful as a Willow’s.

And always there is that pervading aroma, something like the Baytree’s, but much stronger, with a slight admixture of camphor and something peppery. One becomes aware of it after a few moments in a thick Laurel grove or under a great specimen, and the odor grows more, not less, insistent as you stay with it. Crush a leaf lightly and you will pronounce it delicious; but do not inhale it too much, for it may cause violent sneezing, even headache and dizziness.

If you travel south along the Pacific’s shore you meet the green Baytree first in Oregon, keeping company with other hardwoods like the streamside Alders and Maples, becoming more and more abundant and beautiful. Indeed, it takes on there a special shape, seldom seen in California; at least along the highways, though not on the rich bottom-lands, it is a low tree with a short trunk, but broadened in crown to an almost globular mass. It looks then remarkably like some of the great old Box trees one sees in colonial gardens of Virginia, and so regular is its form that it is hard to believe it has not been clipped to an artificial perfection. A particularly lovely grove of such is Myrtlewood Lane – some twenty miles of trees along Oregon State Highway 42, between Coquille and Myrtle Point. One would think they must have been planted here, when in fact the road is new, the trees are old. To preserve this species, Oregon has established a state park, the Maria Jackson Grove, on Brummet Creek, 26 miles from Myrtle Point, an area of 84 acres containing Myrtles of all shapes.

And almost everywhere along the roadsides of southwestern Oregon you see Myrtlewood for sale – platters and bowls, gavels and trays and cigarette boxes fashioned of it. Very light brown with lighter and darker streaks, or a lovely pale gray, Myrtlewood, when cut from burls, is of fancy and fanciful grain. Unfortunately too many of the objects offered for sale are in the souvenir class. The lumber has been cut for shipbuilding, interior finish, furniture, and the jaws, bits, cleats, and cross-trees of small boats. Formerly, at least, a volatile oil – limpid and straw-colored, with an odor resembling that of nutmeg and cardamom -was distilled from the wood and leaves and used hopefully in the treatment of catarrh and nervous headache, colic, diarrhea, and even meningitis. As a pharmaceutical product it seems not to be on the market at present.

Oregon’s Myrtle becomes California Laurel as soon as you cross the state boundary. Now it assumes many other forms, as it adapts itself variously to growth upon sea bluffs forever swept by salt-laden winds, or in the profound shade of mighty Redwoods and Douglastrees, in the sun-scorched chaparral, on the open hills or in the depths of canyons. The typical woodland form is that of a tree taller (40 to 70 feet) than broad, with erect or ascending branches. In this form it resembles that of most forest-grown trees, and thus you see it in among Redwoods. In well-watered canyons, as on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, dense jungles of Laurel form a dwarf forest, their boughs deeply covered with lichen and moss to make what children call a fairy-tale wood. There is also the pendulous form, seen only here and there, in isolated lofty trees whose branchlets drip in almost vine-like sprays. The thicket form is one where all the trees are of the same height and almost flat-topped, as if clipped off by pruning. Even when this form is found growing on the steep sides of a hill or canyon, the tops of the trees are apt to form an almost level expanse, for the trees higher up are mere shrubs, while lower trees may be 40 feet high. The wind, of course, is the sculptor of such groves – fast and constant breezes as blow in from the ocean through the mouth of Tomales Bay, Marin County, California, modeling the trees of famed Laurel Hill. Where briny gales forever blow, as on Pacific bluffs, the Laurel becomes prostrate, crowding into any hollows it can find, and streaming the ground like a green river. In the chaparral a dwarf form is as intricate and twiggy as every other tree that grows there. Where old, large specimens have been cut down, great numbers of shoots sprout up, a perfect fountain of many-jetted tree-life, bushy and luxuriant.

Great specimens are still numerous, despite the fact that in the pioneer days of agriculture the old and noble trees were as ruthlessly felled and grubbed out by the roots as the younger ones, in order to take over the soil for crops. In almost all parts of its range – in scores of California counties – the Laurel has specimens of unusual size and age, locally famous and often the object of deep affection. In the town of San Leandro there stands at 624 Lewelling Road a dooryard tree which is 70 feet high, has a crown 85 feet across, and a trunk 28 feet and 4 inches in girth. But its great table-like base is 49 feet in circumference. At eight feet from the ground it gives off five gigantic forks, the largest of them, in itself, 14 feet in circumference. Old inhabitants say that it was once a much larger tree than now in its old age, and that it was an Indian meeting place. Old Spanish coins have been found buried under it, or so runs the local legend, and this is not impossible, for the present town was all once the property of José Joaquin Estudillo whose rancho was one of the finest in Alta California, famous for its white cattle. Squatters in the eighteen fifties tried to drive the Estudillos from their land and for some time the family was in danger of its lives as well as its fortunes; perhaps the coins were buried here then. At one period there was a great hollow in the base of the trunk and in it a little girl had her playhouse. The bark has now grown completely over it.

On the old San Marcos Road near Santa Barbara grows another great Laurel; above its immensely swollen butt, the trunk is 23 feet in circumference. The total height is 82 feet, and it casts a pool of shade 104 feet across. In many respects this is the finest specimen which has been precisely measured in all its parts – a temple of a tree, breathing aromatic incense.

The little umbel of greenish-white flowers passes almost unnoticed when the blossoms appear in spring. But the foliage is at all times conspicuous, as freshly gleaming on the dark upper surface as if sparkling with dew, the undersides beautifully pale. The new growth of foliage pushes off the old leaves, which turn, a leaf here and there, a soft butter-yellow no matter at what season, but there is never a time when all the tree is golden nor when it stands all bare. Indeed, few trees cast so deep and constant a shade as this one, and when you get a mixture of bushy young Laurel with densely growing Redwoods or broad-leaved Alders and Maples, the darkness of the Underwood is amazing. No eastern woods and none in Europe are so astonishingly dim. The light, for some unexplained reason, is often a golden-brown like that in the backgrounds of the old Dutch masters and in the intense umbrage only a few lush wood ferns are content to grow.

Longevity.-Little is known of the age limits of this tree, which is unquestionably long-lived. Trees from 20 to 25 inches in diameter are from 160 to 210 years old. Larger trees are known which should prove to be very much older.

Green and unseasoned logs sink in water, in which lumbermen place them to produce (by soaking) the beautiful “black myrtle” lumber (Gorman).