California bay is a broadleaf evergreen that grows up to 80 feet tall and 100 feet wide in the northern part of its range but stays smaller in the southern part of its range. In windy areas it may be merely a shrub.
The leaves are glossy above and dull underneath. The plant produces small yellow flowers in late winter or spring. These are followed by fruits that are shaped like large olives.
The leaves are aromatic and can be used like bay leaf (Laurus nobilis) in cooking. California bay leaf is of a stronger flavor than culinary bay, so use half as much.
The wood of California bay is hard, fine grained, and yellowish brown. At a time when larger trees were more common, the wood was used to make furniture. Now it is used to make novelties and souvenirs. I once had a pair of earrings made of 'Oregon myrtle wood', which a relative got me from a vacation in Oregon.
In cultivation, the tree tends to grow slowly to 20 to 25 feet tall and wide. Wild trees are at their best in the redwood belt, and in cultivation, the species grows best in deep soil with regular water. However, the plant is also native to the canyons of southern California and cultivated plants can tolerate some aridity. The tree will grow in sun or shade. Though it is evergreen, there is a heavy drop of leaves in the fall. The tree is hardy in USDA zones 7b-10b or Sunset zones 4-9 and 14-24.
The seed remains viable for a short time and should be planted as soon as possible. Cold stratification is usually recommended. The seed can be started in a plastic bag of damp peat moss and then moved to a large pot after the seed has sprouted.
Before going on a hunt for deer, Chumash Indians would stand in the smoke produced by burning leafy branches of bay. This was said to attract the deer and also make them dull and dizzy and easier to shoot. It probably also masked the human smell.
Native Americans used bay in many herbal remedies. Leaves boiled in water were drunk for colds and to treat diarrhea. Leaves mixed with lard were used as a headache remedy. Leaves were put in a hot water bath to treat rheumatism.
In northern California, many Native people ate the bay fruits. They might be eaten raw, boiled, roasted, or ground into meal for cakes.
This slow-growing tree casts a dense shade, so choosing what to grow under it could be a challenge. However, this also makes it a good shade tree once it gets some height. The tree is also useful as a screen, background planting, or tall hedge. This native tree is suitable for many gardening styles because, unlike many California natives, California bay can handle summer watering.