The California bay laurel or Umbellularia californica (Hook. & Arn.) Nutt., is known as the ‘headache tree’ because the inhalation of its vapours can cause severe headache crises. However, the underlying mechanism of the headache precipitating properties of Umbellularia californica is unknown. The monoterpene ketone umbellulone, the major volatile constituent of the leaves of Umbellularia californica, has irritating properties, and is a reactive molecule that rapidly binds thiols.