Camphor laurel, or Cinnamomum camphora, is a large tree that can grow up to 98 feet (30 m) tall. It belongs to the genus Cinnamomum and the family Lauraceae. Camphor trees are evergreens, which is a type of tree that has leaves throughout the year, even during winter. The substance called natural camphor, which is commonly used in liniments and aromatherapy oils, comes from the camphor tree.
This tree has glossy leaves that are pointed with wavy edges, which start out red but turn green when the tree matures. These leaves give off an aromatic camphor smell when they are crushed. Many clumps of small white flowers sprout from the tree from spring to summer. Its fruits are 0.75 inch (20 mm) round and resemble blackberries when they are ripe.
These trees have been cultivated for centuries in Japan, China, and Taiwan. They were brought to Australia and the United States in the 19th century, but they were declared a noxious weed in New South Wales and Queensland because they compete with important vegetation such as eucalyptus trees. Due to its large spreading roots, it can also damage urban drainage and sewage systems and destroy river banks. The high level of carbon in its leaves hurts water quality and pollutes freshwater fish grounds. As of 2010, there are many ongoing programs to control the proliferation of the camphor laurel in places where it has been classified as an obnoxious weed.
Camphor laurel trees propagate through seeds that attract birds. These seeds are passed whole through the digestive system of the birds and germinate rapidly. The leaves’ camphor content prevents successful germination of other plants surrounding it. They grow well in full sun or partial shade and are tolerant of most types of soil and drought.
Oil can be extracted from the camphor laurel leaves, which are typically harvested every three to four months. This oil is then distilled to form camphor crystals. The typical method of extracting camphor is the steam distillation of 80-year old camphor laurel roots, trunks, and branches. This means cutting down the whole tree to get camphor.
In traditional medicine, camphor was used for all sorts of respiratory ailments, epilepsy, and heart problems. As of 2010, the approved use of crystal camphor is strictly limited to muscle relaxants and analgesic liniments for skin irritations. It works by numbing the peripheral sensory nerve and as a counter-irritant to tame skin inflammations. White camphor oil, with the toxins removed, is used for aromatherapy, candies, and cough syrups. This oil acts as a cough suppressant and coats the upper respiratory tracts to prevent cough reflux.
Cutting down a camphor laurel tree in ancient China was once punishable by death, as it was reserved for special ceremonial items. Eventually, camphorwood chests became a highly sought-after item because the wood repels moth and wood boring insects. Camphorwood today, when available, can be used as wall paneling. It is usually difficult to find camphorwood in regular lumber shops, but it can often be sourced from collectors of exotic wood. Camphor is also used in preparing incense.