Plant Detective

Moving to a new place involves a high level of learning. There’s the obvious need to learn a new address and route to drive home, as well as getting to know the physical layout of a new house, learning about new animals who may be around and require care, and develop different daily routines.

Moving to a farm also involves getting to know the land- the wind patterns, the path of the sun, the soils, and the plants with whom we share the space. (The song “Getting to Know You” from “A King and I” always runs through my mind when I think about getting to know the land.)

One day I walked the property with the intention of getting to know the plants and trees around our new home. My attention was captured by a large, beautiful tree near the barn with evergreen leaves and several tight buds.

Then, I noticed something else on the tree. Something that caused me, as a mama of a child with life-threatening allergies to tree nuts, concern.

I wasn’t certain what this fruit/nut/seed/pod was, but it certainly resembled the fleshy meat of many tree nuts. Up close, it had more of the look of an olive than a nut. Whatever it was, it warranted further investigation.

When cracked open, it looked like a miniature avocado or perhaps some type of an olive. Neither of these plants seemed to match the fruit/nut/pod/seed with the physical characteristics of the tree, though.

I checked with friends on social media, and scoured the internet in search of a positive ID of what had quickly become the mystery plant. Eventually, I gathered cuttings from the tree, the nut/seed/pod/fruit, and copious pictures and went to visit our local OSU Extension Office. (If you haven’t worked with these people, they are outstanding resources! They have Master Gardeners who are able to research mystery plants and determine toxicity, an incredible gift to someone like me who is learning acres worth of new plants and worried about allergen exposure for a medically fragile child.)

The Master Gardening team had a strong hunch as soon as they saw the cuttings presented, but they confirmed the plant identification a few days later with additional research– Umbellularia californica, more commonly known as the California Bay Laurel (or Oregon Myrtle).

Both not toxic and not a nut- fantastic news!

Now that the plant detective work is finished, it will be fun to research more about how the tree might be used, whether as a substitutes for Bay leaves in cooking or for roasting seeds to be eaten whole or turned into a powder to make a hot-chocolate-esque drink.