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Tree of the Week: Camphor

April 19, 2008 |  5:54 am


I'm happy to report that Pieter Severynen's "Tree of the Week" is back after a week off. Welcome back, Pieter.

The Camphor Tree – Cinnamomum camphor

"A tree that has both cinnamon and camphor in its name must be interesting. The camphor tree is a member of the Laurel family, which is known for its aromatic leaves and bark. The family includes the Sweet Bay or Grecian Laurel of cooking fame, Laurus nobilis, and the true Cinnamon Tree, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, the ground inner bark of which yields aromatic essential oils and cinnamon, described as far back as the Bible. You can always identify the camphor tree by crushing a leaf and inhaling its pungent camphor smell. Camphor was steamed out of the bark and wood and used for cooking, antiseptic and other medical applications, incense, insect repellant, and industrial uses before it could be manufactured artificially. In the 1600s Dutch merchants brought the tree to the Netherlands from Japan.

"If allowed to spread, the camphor tree in Southern California develops at a slow to moderate pace into a 60 feet tall by 50 feet wide, dense, broadleaf, evergreen tree. It is magnificent where as a street tree it provides a complete canopy over the street, something cities unfortunately no longer let happen due to the cost of maintenance. It has a strong structure with heavy, upright, spreading limbs. The deeply furrowed, light gray bark turns a beautiful black when wet.  The 2.5- to 5-inch-long elliptical leaves with three prominent veins start out pinkish bronze in spring, then turn shiny yellow to apple green later in the season. Inconspicuous greenish flowers spice the spring air with a delicate fragrance; small blackish fruits follow later. Heavy leaf drop and invasive roots may be problematic. The tree is drought tolerant.

"Originally from China, Japan and Korea, the camphor tree shows the ‘vacation effect’ peculiar to so many trees: It does very well in a new environment. Sometimes too well: The tree has become invasive along the American Gulf Coast, in Hawaii and other moist climates. We are lucky here because our summer dry Mediterranean climate lets us enjoy this beautiful and deservedly popular tree without danger of it escaping into the wild and taking over native habitats."

Thanks, Pieter.
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Photo Credit: Camphor trees on Prospect Avenue in Pasadena, 1996, by the L.A. Time