Camphor Tree: Cinnamon’s Smelly Cousin

by Green Deane

in Beverage,Greens/Pot Herb,Medicinal,Miscellaneous,Plants,Spice/Seasoning,Trees/Shrubs

Camphor barely makes it into the edible category

 Campy Camphor: Not Just For Grandma

One would never guess Camphor trees are not native to Florida, or the South. One also probably wouldn’t guess they are closely related to the cinnamon tree, either.

The Camphor has a split personality:  Folks either like a lot, or dislike it a lot. There’s little middle ground. First it grows huge, and fast. This upsets controlled garden folks who don’t like their planned pallet colored by a rambunctious upstart. Then there are the berries and hundreds of seedlings every year. Whether pal or pest is a matter of attitude and perspective.

Young pink leaves can be cooked as greens

The young leaves and shoots of the camphor can be boiled and eaten. The roots of the young shoots are used to make a tea. Older leaves can be used as a spice. But go easy, they are toxic in large doses. All parts contains chemicals that can stimulate the central nervous system. This can affect respiration or cause convulsions. In Chinese medicine, pregnant women are not allowed camphor in any form at anytime.

While camphor is not a common spice flavor today it has been used a lot in the past and was popular in Europe until the Renaissance. Camphor wood, or leaves and twigs, is used to make a popular Szechuan smoked duck. Camphor oil has been used in commercial baked goods, beverages, and candy. It has also been added to milk puddings and confections. In fact, it is an ingredient in Swedish Bitters. Why use Camphor oil, or a fractal of it? It  contains safole, the essential oil in sassafras which used to be a main flavor in root beer.

Refined camphor

If you are not consuming parts of the Camphor tree it makes excellent wood for clothes bureaus, naturally driving away insects. Camphor is a native to Japan, China, Taiwan and northern Vietnam and was introduced into Florida in 1875, which is rather amazing consider how large some of the specimens are today, some 136 years later.  There were actually camphor tree plantations. Now the state calls the Camphor an “exotic pest plant” yet it is still sold in nurseries and other stores. It is naturalized in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas and South Carolina.  In Australia, where it was introduced in 1822, it is officially a noxious weed.  It also grows in the Caribbean. Camphor is, as mentioned earlier, a source of safrole, a banned oil that used to come from the sassafras tree. And of course the tree is the source of camphor oil, which is one of the ingredients in Tiger Balm.

The scientific name is Cinnamomum camphora. Cinnamomum (sin-uh-MOE-mum) comes from the Greek word ‘kinnamomon’ meaning spice. Camphora (kam-FOR-uh in Latin)  is  also Greek and comes from the ancient word for the tree, kamfora (except the Greek pronunciation puts the accents the end, kam-for-AH.)

The wood itself, which is steamed to collected the oil, has red and yellow striping making it a favorite of wood workers.  The tree is also very resistant to hurricanes and is the official tree of Hiroshima, Japan.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Leaves, alternate, evergreen, simple, oval to elliptical, 5 inches, usually less, edges can be somewhat wavy, dark glossy green above, pale below, with three prominent veins, camphor odor when crushed. Leaves are pink when young. Fruit appear in autumn, dark blue to black, round, fleshy drupes; usually produced in excess. Not edible. The bark is reddish brown and variable. The trunk can reach six feet through, and the tree can grow to 70 feet tall.

TIME OF YEAR: Young leaves anytime, shoots when sprouting, usually spring but not exclusively.

ENVIRONMENT: Open spaces with plenty of sun and adequate. Does not like its feet wet.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Young leaves and shoots boiled. Shoots used to make tea, older leaves as a spice.  Use in moderation. Twigs, leaves and wood can be used to add a smokey flavor to food.

HERB BLURB

Camphor oil has a strong fragrance, a bitter flavor, and feels cool on the skin. It can irritating and numbing. It has been used to treat everything from parasites  to toothaches. Research shows camphor is antiseptic and can be used for treating diarrhea, inflammation, itching, and some nervous conditions.

 

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brown camphor oil is non-toxic October 29, 2012 at 08:33

Before using camphor oil my hair was really becoming dull but as soon as I visited your informative site, it has proved to be a boon for me. Keep doing the great work

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2 Wendy March 14, 2013 at 23:59

Hello,
I am looking for some help with my Cinnamon Camphor. I live in Irvine CA and have a patio garden, so plants are potted. My Camphor lives out on my recessed balcony which gets plenty of sun. It is dropping leaves, as they turn yellow and get brown spots. When I got it home from the nursery, I repotted it to allow for future root growth, keeping it’s roots in it’s original soil. The pot has 6 half-inch holes in the bottom and I lined with river rocks before replanting and adding additional soil. Unfortunately, there was no “care tag” with my purchase, so I called the nursery to inquire on it’s care. They advised to water twice a week, allowing to drain, and fertilize once a month. I want to save it, as I have always had a green thumb—but this is my first Cinnamon Camphor and I don’t want to lose it. I made the purchase because it has nice sturdy barked branches to hang a hummingbird feeder and wild bird feeder. If there are special care needs for this species, I’d be happy to get your help. Thank you in advance for your advice.
Wendy Vandenbrock

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3 Wendy March 15, 2013 at 00:06

I forgot to mention that on the upside, there is plenty of new growth. Since it’s still a bit chilly here, I did cut it back a bit, hoping this might help in stimulating even more growth. If there is a certain type of fertilizer, such as nitrate or similar, please specify exactly what it’s needs are. I want to nurse it back to a healthy life.

Thank you.

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4 Leaves September 1, 2013 at 20:10

Hi there, Wendy this tree is a noxious weed here in Australia and the Camphor laurel does very well in all environments around Australia, so if your plant is in a pot just give it some Dynamic lifter & feed it some seaweed liquid fertilizer once every 2 weeks. If the temps are down below 0 degrees celsius bring the Camphor plant inside to protect it from the cold. Other than that this tree should not give you any problems.

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5 owolabi October 8, 2013 at 10:11

Can the oil extract in products cause abortion if inhaled?

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6 Green Deane October 8, 2013 at 10:40

Such extracts usually have to be consumed in significant amounts. I would consult an herbalist, which I am not.

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7 bob dagit October 8, 2013 at 18:36

i am told that phytophthora dieback is caused by imported asian camphor trees a century ago in australia and it is causing a plague of root rot dieback in australian endemic species, some rare and threatened. i hope it does not affect florida! http://dieback.org.au/

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8 Marie Morris February 10, 2014 at 17:50

I have an unusual request for an herb friend of mine. He wants to find someone who who has a farm that commercially grows this delightful tree. It is, of course, one of my favorite trees which has great potential in LA, FL, and GA. He wants a camphor tree farm that can perhaps distill the natural oil from the leaves. I understand this was probably attempted at some time, but do you know of any current sites that cultivate it? Thanking you in advance for your answer. I continue to enjoy your delightful videos!
Marie

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9 Green Deane February 10, 2014 at 20:36

Cultivate it? The state is vigorously trying to get rid of it. I doubt they would let anyone start such a tree farm. More to the point there are so many of the trees one would not need a farm to have leaves to distill. Just make friends with a tree service. The one place where they do grow them intentionally is in China.

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10 tim hartt February 13, 2014 at 13:33

the wild parrots seem to like the berrys insandiego. will they get sick and will they leave after a while because they do make a mess.

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