Synonyms: Camphor Laurel, Gum Camphor, Camphor Tree
Scientific Name: Cinnamomum camphora (L.) J.S. Presl
Family: Lauraceae (Laurel Family)
Southern China, Southern Japan, Formosa (Taiwan)
Essential oil, containing camphor as pure substance
Thence we sailed to the isle of Rohat where the camphor trees grow to such a size that a hundred men could shelter under one of them with ease.
Such huge dimensions as described in the Arabian Nights are probably only to be found in the tree's native habitat: here the many-branched camphor tree can grow to a height of 40m with a spread of 5m. Its gnarled branches carry oval elliptic leaves which can also reach an impressive length of up to 13cm. The clusters of small, inconspicuous greenish-yellow flowers develop into purplish black berries. The camphor tree is related to the cinnamon and avocado trees.
Nowadays camphor is only rarely used internally as cardiac or cough remedy. It is more often used externally in the form of camphor spirits, ointments or oils for the treatment of rheumatic disesaes and muscle pain, in veterinary medicine also for sprains and pulled muscles. In homeopathy camphor is used for fortification at the beginning of a cold.
The name camphor is derived from the Indonesian kapur = chalk, via the Arabic word Kâfur. In Middle High German Kampfer referred to a resinous mass.
Camphor is an ancient Chinese medicinal remedy which was brought to Europe in about the 11th century by the Arabs. It was considered extremely valuable and was worth its weight in gold. Princes would send it to each other as a tribute or gift. In the Koran it is praised as a substance for cooling the drinks of the righteous in Paradise. In India camphor is dedicated to Shiva and is burnt in his honour on many occasions. For example, in some temples in Sri Lanka there are special places where people can pray to have their wishes granted. To do this a piece of camphor is burnt on a coconut which the devotee holds in both hands. While the camphor is burning he concentrates on his wish. When the flame goes out he throws the coconut to the ground with such force that it breaks. Camphor is said to destroy negative influences and produce a clairvoyant state of mind. This was probably the reason for its use as magical incense in French occultism. It was also used to create states of intoxication but had to be ingested for this purpose.
The highly aromatic wood keeps away insects. This is why linen chests and bookcases used to be made of camphor wood. In the past seamen's chests were also made of or at least lined with the light wood as it was said to have preservative properties.
The plant from another perspective
Essential camphor oil is not obtained from the leaves and flowers but from the lowest part of the trunk which is permeated most strongly with the aromatic odour. This alone would be unusual enough, the mighty trunk being infused with a scented floral element. But that is not all: as the mixture of essential oils obtained by steam distillation cools, camphor crystallizes out as pure substance. This in turn can bind so much warmth that it can go directly from the solid to the gaseous state. Camphor moves in the polarity of warmth and cold. Its most important constitutent must first be released by the heat of steam distillation before it is transformed into the pure crystalline form by cooling. This makes it easy to understand why doctors have argued about whether camphor has cooling or warming properties. It is part of its nature that both qualities go hand in hand. And together they produce its unusual healing powers: through temporary cooling it stimulates the body to generate moderate heat, in degenerative states is cools and relieves mild reactive inflammation.