Myrtlewood is food and people safe. The leaves and bark only can be a sensitizer to the woodworker, as these areas house the natural protections against pests and fungus.
Historical usage: (Source Wikipedia)
Umbellularia has long been valued for its many uses by Native Americans throughout the tree’s range, including the Cahuilla, Chumash, Pomo, Miwok, Yuki, Coos, and Salinan people. The Concow tribe call the plant sō-ē’-bä (Konkow language).
The leaf has been used as a cure for headache, toothache, and earache—though the volatile oils in the leaves may also cause headaches. Poultices of Umbellularia leaves were used to treat rheumatism and neuralgias. A tea was made from the leaves to treat stomach aches, colds, sore throats, and to clear up mucus in the lungs. The leaves were steeped in hot water to make an infusion that was used to wash sores. The Pomo and Yuki tribes of Mendocino County treated headaches by placing a single leaf in the nostril or bathing the head with a laurel leaf infusion.
The chemical responsible for the headache-inducing effects of Umbellularia is known as umbellulone.
Both the flesh and the inner kernel of the fruit have been used as food by Native Americans. The fatty outer flesh of the fruit, or mesocarp, is palatable raw for only a brief time when ripe; prior to this the volatile aromatic oils are too strong, and afterwards the flesh quickly becomes bruised, like that of an overripe avocado. Native Americans dried the fruits in the sun and ate only the lower third of the dried mesocarp, which is less pungent.
The hard inner seed underneath the fleshy mesocarp, like the pit of an avocado, cleaves readily in two when its thin shell is cracked. The pit itself was traditionally roasted to a dark chocolate-brown color, removing much of the pungency and leaving a spicy flavor. Roasted, shelled “bay nuts” were eaten whole, or ground into powder and prepared as a drink which resembles unsweetened chocolate. The flavor, depending on roast level, has been described variously as “roast coffee,” “dark chocolate” or “burnt popcorn”. The powder might also be used in cooking or pressed into cakes and dried for winter storage. It has been speculated that the nuts contain a stimulant; however this possible effect has been little documented by biologists.
The leaf can be used in cooking, but is spicier and “headier” than the Mediterranean bay leaf, and should be used in smaller quantity. Umbellularia leaf imparts a somewhat stronger camphor/cinnamon flavor compared to the Mediterranean bay.
Some modern-day foragers and wild food enthusiasts have revived Native American practices regarding the edible roasted fruit, the bay nut.
Umbellularia californica is also used in woodworking. It is considered a tonewood, used to construct the backs and sides of acoustic guitars. The wood is very hard and fine, and is also made into bowls, spoons, and other small items and sold as “myrtlewood”. It is also grown as an ornamental tree, both in its native area, and further north up the Pacific coast to Vancouver in Canada, and in western Europe. It is occasionally used for firewood.
According to a modern Miwok recipe for acorn soup, “it is essential that you add a generous amount of California laurel” when storing acorns to dry, to keep insects away from the acorns.
One popular use for the leaves is to put them between the bed mattresses to get rid of, or prevent, flea infestations.
The wood is used as lumber in furniture making, especially highly figured specimens.
“Myrtlewood” is the only wood still in use as a base “metal” for legal tender. During the 1933 “interregnum of despair” between Franklin Roosevelt’s election and his inauguration, the only bank in the town of North Bend, Oregon—the First National—was forced to temporarily close its doors, precipitating a cash-flow crisis for the City of North Bend. The city solved this problem by minting its own currency, using myrtlewood discs printed on a newspaper press. These coins, in denominations from 25 cents to $10, were used to pay employees, with the city promising to redeem them for cash as soon as it became available.
However, when the bank reopened and the city appealed for people to bring their myrtlewood money in to redeem it, many opted to keep their tokens as collector’s items. After several appeals, the city announced that the tokens would remain legal tender in the city of North Bend in perpetuity. The unredeemed tokens have become very valuable, because of scarcity and historical interest. Fewer than 10 full sets are believed to exist.