Spend enough time in the South Coast area, especially around Bandon, and you can’t miss the signs advertising myrtlewood. From groves to woodworkers to factories to gift shops, myrtlewood is as ubiquitous as cranberries and golf courses in the Bandon area.
Myrtlewood is formally known as Umbellularia californica. It is a large hardwood tree that only grows in the coastal forests of the California and southern Oregon coasts. A cousin of the bay laurel tree, it is known in Oregon as the Oregon Myrtle and in California as the California Bay Laurel. Other common names are Pepperwood, Mountain Laurel, and Balm of Heaven.
People throughout history have found a number of uses for this broadleaf evergreen. Native Americans found that the leaves of the tree could cure headaches, toothaches and earaches, and poultices could be made to treat rheumatism and nerve pain. Infusions made with the leaves and hot water were used to wash sores.
The nuts were eaten raw or dried, when roasted, the nuts could be eaten or ground into powder and prepared as a drink resembling roast coffee or dark chocolate.
Today, similar to bay leaves, the leaves of the Oregon Myrtle are used in cooking. The flavor is much stronger than the typical bay leaf, so leaves should be used sparingly. People still roast the nuts for eating or grinding into a powder for beverages.
The most well-known use of the Oregon Myrtle is in woodworking. The dense and richly grained wood is valued for its intricate patterns and beautiful colors. As long ago as the late 1800s, a cottage industry of handcrafted gifts was born along the coast. Today, factories along the southern Oregon and California coasts use it to create bowls, spoons, jewelry, clocks, trinket boxes, lamps and more.
A little-known use of the Oregon Myrtle is what came to be known as “Myrtlewood Money.” Early in 1933, during the Great Depression, the only bank in North Bend (approximately 27 miles north of Bandon) closed, and the City of North Bend suddenly found it had no access to its funds and was unable to pay its bills as well as its employees’ salaries. Ignoring the law which stated that only the U.S. Government could mint money, the City of North Bend solved its problem by printing coins on discs made of myrtlewood to use to pay salaries. The idea was that these coins would be used for merchandise and then used to pay the merchants and their employees, and the new money would then stay in circulation.
After a few months, the bank re-opened, and appeals were made to North Bend’s citizens to redeem the money for greenbacks, but many people chose to keep them. The city finally gave up the appeals and announced that the tokens would remain legal tender forever, and people would always be able to cash them in for their face value. Over time, however, the tokens have become much more valuable as collector’s items. Fewer than 10 full sets of Myrtlewood Money still exist, and one is in the collection at the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City.
Who says money doesn’t grow on trees?