Plant Species of the San Jacinto Mountains
Umbellularia californica, California bay


California bay, Umbellularia californica, is also known as California bay tree, California laurel, and Pepperwood. In Oregon it is called Oregon myrtle.

California bay is unique in that it is the sole member of the genus Umbellularia, and it is the only member of the laurel family, Lauraceae, native to California. Worldwide, that family has ± 54 genera, and ± 3500 species, mostly in the tropics.

In the field, California bay may be overlooked because of its resemblance to willows. However, it can easily be distinguished from willows by its inflorescence, fruit, and the fact that it is evergreen. Its leaves are highly aromatic exuding a spicy fragrance when crushed or even brushed. It is touted as a flavoring in cooking, but according to some sources it may be toxic to some humans.

U. californica was an uncommon occurrence in our surveys since it lives only below about 6000 feet elevation, and most of our surveys are at higher elevations. Even in our surveys below 6000 feet, we rarely found it, and when we did find it, we generally found only a few plants. This led us to believe that it is a species on the way out in the San Jacintos. We were therefore surprised when we surveyed the Vista Grande Road 3S08 and found a thriving population of at least 50 plants, all at about 4750 feet elevation.

There are a lot of unsurveyed areas on the west side of the San Jacintos at elevations of 4500 to 6000 feet. A targeted search of its habitat in those areas may reveal that it is more abundant than currently known.

Distribution in the San Jacinto Mountains

Table 1 gives all the known locations in the San Jacinto Mountains of Umbellularia californica. Table 1 is sorted by latitude from south to north. The locations come from 25 of our observations, 2 vouchers, and 1 observation each from Mark Reese, Bruce Watts, and iNaturalist.

Table 1. Locations of Umbellularia californica in the San Jacinto Mountains, sorted by latitude from south to north

#Elev(ft)# plantsLatitudeLongitudeAreaSource
16520133.70854-116.62509Spitler Peak TrailOur surveys
2294433.71131-116.76885SR74 at Lower Strawberry CreekOur surveys
355551033.74261-116.72949Idyllwild Park Summit TrailOur surveys
438602033.74326-116.78610Halfway SpringOur surveys
55123533.74332-116.75198Spring ne of Alvin MeadowMark Reese
65168333.74349-116.75288Just west of spring ne of Alvin MeadowOur surveys
7338533.75063-116.78925North Fork at bottom of Fishermans TrailiNat
853241233.75252-116.76429Webster TrailOur surveys
9542533.76585-116.754465S09Our surveys
105914233.77098-116.74440Old road between 5S09 and Al HattiOur surveys
11460733.77128-116.765175S09 just below Stone CreekOur surveys
12429133.77563-116.776565S09 at North Fork San Jacinto RiverOur surveys
135396233.79672-116.77596Mtn bike trail near Indian VistaBruce Watts
145450133.7973-116.77643SR243 catercorner corner from Indian VistaOur surveys
15560033.80500-116.74778Fuller Mill Creek, 0.5 mi upstream from SR243Voucher
166214133.81228-116.74928Black Mountain RoadOur surveys
175447633.81232-116.77262James Reserve Nature TrailOur surveys
1852121033.81954-116.78931Bay Tree Spring Our surveys
195162133.82074-116.79138SR243 at Call Box 243-160Our surveys
207574333.8227-116.805874S05 oracle oak surveyOur surveys
214976133.82499-116.797664S05 oracle oak surveyOur surveys
224715133.82587-116.803064S05 oracle oak surveyOur surveys
2347595033.83562-116.78647Vista Grande RoadOur surveys
24479333.83623-116.78462Vista Grande RoadOur surveys
25477533.83678-116.78228Vista Grande RoadOur surveys
26474133.83817-116.78151Vista Grande RoadOur surveys
27474033.83882-116.79714Vista Grande RoadOur surveys
28475133.83929-116.79905Vista Grande RoadOur surveys
29485633.83977-116.80378Vista Grande RoadOur surveys
30160033.88066-116.67567Snow Canyon, 1500 feet elevationVoucher

We estimated that there were a minimum of 50 plants combining all locations along Vista Grande Road.

The locations are plotted in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. All known locations of Umbellularia californica in the San Jacinto Mountains.

The locations on the west side of the San Jacinto Mountains are also plotted on a more-detailed topographic map in two maps: Locations near Pine Cove and Locations north of Pine Cover.

Fig. 2 plots the elevation vs. longitude for all the accepted locations. Fig. 3 shows just the locations on the west side.

Except for the voucher in Snow Canyon at 1500 feet elevation, and the single plant near the top of the Spitler Peak Trail at 6520 feet elevation, the elevations range from 3000 to ~6000 feet, with most of the known plants between 4500 and 6000 feet.

Fig. 2. Plot of Elevation vs. Longitude for all known locations in the San Jacinto Mountains.

Fig. 3. Plot of Elevation vs. Longitude for just the locations on the west side of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Distribution in Southern California

We thank Mark Reese for the count of the number of bay trees at Bay Tree Spring and his new location, and Bruce Watts for his new location.

Go to:

Copyright © 2020 by Dave Stith and Tom Chester.
Commercial rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce any or all of this page for individual or non-profit institutional internal use as long as credit is given to us at this source:
Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Updated 17 December 2020.