Drive along southwest Oregon’s coast, and you'll see signs shouting myrtle novelties. In the Coos Bay-Coquille area, a thriving cottage industry has sprung up to produce these wood items. Why tout this wood? For more than 170 years, the California laurel, commonly called myrtle, has been novel.
"The foliage, when bruised, gives out a most powerful, camphor-like scent, "I have been obliged to remove from under its shade, the odor being so strong as to occasion violent sneezing," wrote English botanical explorer David Douglas in 1826.
With myrtle causing such a reaction, Oregon shipbuilders of the mid-1800s must have been a noisy lot. They called on the wood extensively for parts that required strength as well as smooth-wearing qualities. Today, turners and other woodworkers prize myrtle for its beauty.
The California laurel (Umbellularia californica), and its distant cousin sassafras, represent the only North American species of an entirely tropical genus.
As home range, myrtle settles between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, from southern Oregon down through California. Myrtle, an evergreen, doesn’t mind high, dry, wind-swept environs, but in them, rarely grows larger than bush-size. To attain its finest development, myrtle demands the rich, moist valley soil. There, the tree, swathed in its thick, reddish-brown bark, can attain a 90' height and a 5' diameter.
Marked by green, glossy leaves from 2-1⁄2 " to 4-1⁄2 " long, myrtle trees bear small yellow-green flowers in the spring. Inedible, round, purple berries appear later.
Myrtle has a tan sapwood and close-grained heartwood of a pleasing light-brown color. And, even the plainest boards have some favorable figure, as myrtle develops attractive mottle, bird’s-eye, and swirling burls.
In hardness, strength, and weight, myrtle compares favorably with oak. Turners favor myrtle because of its tighter grain and ease of sanding.
The same attributes woodturners praise, however, pose difficulties for craftsmen relying only on hand tools. To work myrtle, even power tools should have carbide blades. When planing or routing figured myrtle, expect some tear-out.
You can glue myrtle with all types of adhesives, and screws hold tightly in the wood. And, you won't need sanding sealers or fillers on myrtle's grain, except in figured areas where grain switches. The wood takes stain and all finishes without problems.
Turners prefer highly figured stock, especially burls for bowls, but also make candlesticks, decanters, and other items of myrtle. Cabinetmakers seek veneers of figured myrtle for custom case goods and furniture pieces.
Where it grows, myrtle will cost from $1.50 to $3.00 per board foot for plain stock. Burls and figured stock command higher prices. Along Oregon's beaches, you can pick up myrtle driftwood for free, or buy it from coastal roadside businesses.
Expect to pay about $2 per square foot for figured burl veneer. You won't find myrtle plywood available anywhere, and lumber only occasionally in other parts of the nation.
Illustration: Steve Schindler Photographs: Hopkins Associates