Related to true cinnamon trees that provide the cinnamon spice from their bark, the camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) also produces scented foliage and twigs but with non-edible modern uses. Grow this evergreen tropical tree in a fertile sandy soil with an acidic to slightly alkaline pH in full sun settings. Where light winter frosts occur it remains a shrub, but in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 9 and warmer, it grows into an imposing shade tree.
The camphor tree is native to the valleys and mountain slopes of southcentral and southeastern China. It also is found in parts of Taiwan, the southern Korean Peninsula and Japan's southernmost islands. The camphor tree is grown as an ornamental tree across the tropics today and has escaped cultivation to become a naturalized species in parts of Australia and the southern United States.
Sometimes called ho wood or camphor laurel, camphor trees grow upwards of 45 to 60 feet tall and nearly as wide but to 100 feet in their natural range, according to Robert Lee Riffle in "The Tropical Look." The evergreen leaves are tapered ovals with a deep glossy green color. Newly emerging leaves are an attractive pinkish bronze. Crush the twigs, foliage or roots of this tree, and an aroma of menthol permeates the air. The bark becomes a light gray with age. In late spring tiny green-white flowers appear that later become numerous shiny black seeds that drop to the ground from late summer to winter's start.
Across the world's tropical areas the camphor tree makes an exceptional shade, windbreak or street tree in spacious landscapes. Camphor wood bears attractive red and yellow striping but is not particularly strong, according to Floridata's on-line accounts. It is good for woodworking and receives polishing well. The wood makes handsome chests, closets, coffins, instruments and sculptures, while fine cabinetry is made from its veneer. The aromatic oils in the wood repel insects. Camphor oil has a strong penetrating menthol scent, a pungent bitter flavor and feels cool and eventually numbing on bare skin. It has value for antiseptics and medications treating diarrhea, inflammation and itching, according to Botanical.com. Camphor is also stored and sold in a white crystal form.
When growing the tree for shade, keep in mind that the extensive, broad root system of a camphor tree resents root disturbance. Consider growing turf or laying mulch under its canopy rather than digging and planting garden flowers and perennials under it. The roots are also rather aggressive, growing wherever necessary to obtain moisture or richer soil, according to Michael Dirr. The copious drops of the seeds in autumn and early winter pose a litter nuisance and a hazard to pedestrians on smooth-surface sidewalks or paths.
Seeds of the camphor tree germinate readily once reaching the warm moist ground. Young trees also emerge from roots near the soil surface to create grove-like thickets. For this reason this tree has gained the status of being either a noxious weed or a prohibited plant in some warm climate regions. Australia, Hawaii, Texas, California and Florida are but a few geographical areas where this tree is ecologically troublesome.
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