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Jun 3, 2002 11:50 AM

California Bay (leaves, that is!)

  • i

Looking for some advice on using California Bay. Recently we ran out of bay leaves. My wife suggested that we try gathering some native california bay. In mentioning this to some friends, they told us that they thought that california bay should not be used for cooking; sort of implying that it might be bad for health. I only have a vague recollection of reading in some book that the california version is much stronger in flavor.

So hounds', will I poison myself with our native version of bay?


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  1. I have been using it for years and I am not dead yet.
    It is great when used for roasting potatoes.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Gatun

      California Bay is great, but you should know that it's a lot stronger than regular Bay Leaves. Use a lot less than normal, and you might need to remove it from the pot early if the flavor gets too strong or bitter.

      1. re: RedRob

        I'll second that. The first time we used it in some minestrone, it so overpowered the rest of the flavors that we ended up dividing that batch up and freezing to use as a starter for future batches.

        1. re: jaweino

          That hasn't been my experience -- I just use it because it's always been handy. Maybe I'm just used to how strong it is -- and I like it. anyway, they're not poisonous or anything. they smell wonderful. One of the fun things about Bay trees is that when they fall over (which they are prone to doing --don't plant them too close to your house!)they reroot and start growing upward from the fallen trunk.

          1. re: kim cooper

            I've used it for years and am still with the living, too. Tip: if you gather it in a more mountainous, cold area, it will be sweeter and not bitter. I noticed a tremendous difference in the bay I gathered in the mountains at Henry Coe State Park and the bay I gathered down here in the flatlands. The flatland bay was strong and almost bitter-tasting. I'm guessing that the cooler weather affects the flavor.

            My favorite use for it is to put a leaf or two in the pot when I'm making poultry stock.

            1. re: pugluvr

              That's a really good tip. I'll bet that's why my bay was good -- we had 24 acres outside of Willets, and when a bay fell over, I gathered enough leaves to last years -- and gave them to all my friends too. It freezes there, but not much (we made snow people once). I think I may still have a leaf or two from that tree....

    2. j

      Walked outside Friday night and smelled something wonderfully aromatic. Took me a minute before I realized my neighbor had cut down one of his bay trees. I can keep every Chowhound on the board in bay leaves forever with all the bay trees in the neighborhood. Hmmmmmmmmm...maybe a new fundraiser for Chowhound?

      5 Replies
      1. re: jenniferfishwilson
        Ciaohound (Bob Savelli)

        Hi Jennifer,

        I seem to remember you live in Contra Costa County.

        I live in the foggy part of San Francisco and grow California Laurel Trees also.

        Maybe we should have a taste (smell?) test of your warm weather bay leaves against our cold weather ones.

        I use about 1/2 leaf of California Laurel as compared to one leaf the non-native variety.

        I also use my Ronco Food Dehydrator to dry the leaves and store them in jars or baggies and they last a long time. The trees are evergreen so there are always beautiful fresh leaves to dry for cooking. We always throw a few into our corned beef water, stews, etc.

        1. re: Ciaohound (Bob Savelli)

          I've been using the local bay for a long time, and the half-as-much formula works just fine for me.

          I also like to gather local sage out by the ocean for herb purposes. Got the idea long time ago from Nepenthe in Big Sur. They had on their menu "Lollie's Roast Chicken with wild sage dressing" or something like that.

          1. re: Sharuf

            Ah, sage...the weekend before last, on a short backpack trip, I had fresh-caught trout stuffed with wild sage grilled over a wood fire. It's even better if there are wild onions to add to the mix.

            1. re: Sharuf
              Ciaohound (Bob Savelli)

              Hi Sharon,

              If you like sage and chicken together try this recipe:

              Fry a bunch of sage leaves in butter for a couple of minutes until they crisp.

              Place about 6 sage leaves on each boneless, skinless chicken breast and wrap with a piece or two of prosciutto.

              Brown in prosciutto wrapped chicken in butter.

              Then put in baking dish and cover with fontina cheese; bake until cheese melts.

              This is from the Dean & DeLucca cookbook and I'll be happy to provide you the recipe on or off line if you're interested in trying it.

              I grow sage and it is an excellent way to use it up when it's good and ready.

              1. re: Ciaohound (Bob Savelli)

                Bob: good thing the chicken breast is skinless. Makes it a good diet dish, right? :-)

                Anyway, it sounds very good and very Italian. Like something from my Talisman cookbook. Do send me some of your favorite recipes. Or better yet, start a new thread.

        2. The original comment has been removed
          1. Since this thread (one of many on bay) has been ressurrected, I'm going to chime in with an 'apples and oranges' post.

            The two plants come from different plant genus' so are not related. They do contain some of the same volatile oils and compounds that make up their respective flavor and olfactory profiles. But each has a different set.

            Laurus nobilis is the historical culinary plant of Mediterranean origins. It forms a tightly compact, deep green upright slow-growing shrub/tree. The leaves are used fresh or dried as a savory component in many stews and sauce recipes originating in the Mediterranean and surrounding areas. It is easily grown in California in areas mostly frost-free. Because of its smaller stature and slower growth, it can be incorporated in our smaller modern gardens. Can be grown in a large tub for years.

            Umbellaria californica is the tall, somewhat rangey, multi-trunked tree native to moist areas of the Coast mountain ranges from northern Santa Barbara county north into Oregon. It is ubiquitous in the SF Bay Area. **It contains umbellulone, a volitile compound that is considered "toxic" (sickening) as inhilation of the compounds from freshly bruised leaves can cause severe headache and sinus irritation, etc. Umbellaria has many historical uses such as pest control, as seasoning (in moderation), for wood carving, and the seed pods can be dried and ground for use as a food or beverage. As a seasoning, use with moderation in food preparation, unless you have a particular fondness for the stronger flavor of Umbellaria.

            Here's an interesting discussion of the ethnobotony of Umbellaria califonica:

            and one about laurus vs. umbellaria: (go to the non-printable guide


            I have many childhhod memories of collecting Umbellaria leaves with my mom in Big Sur every summer. It's what seasoned our spaghetti sauce, and I make holiday wreaths from cocllected branches, but now prefer the 'sweeter' Laurus for cooking. Got one in my garden.

            2 Replies
            1. re: toodie jane

              The "can cause" from freshly bruised leaves I think means "sometimes rarely causes", because I've bruised many an Umbellaria leaf for myself and friends with no ill effects. I love it as a pick-me-up on a long hike.

              1. re: bbulkow

                Maybe having the imported Laurus around has changed the compounds in the California bay? Can they interbreed if they aren't the same species?