Ahh, the magnificent and contentious Camphor tree. These trees stay green year long, provide plenty of shade, emit a fragrant minty smell and are just one of those trees you want to go up and give a good hug. Ask another tree lover, however, and they might say the camphor is one tree to steer clear of.
Now, I’ll admit that these trees have a lot going against them. They are invasive to some parts of the U.S., spread like crazy, are not the most sturdy trees, are susceptible to disease, and their long roots can do serious damage to sidewalks and septic tanks. Given the right setting and owner, however, the camphor can become a wonderfully beautiful shade tree for those willing to put in the effort.
Is a Camphor Tree not for you? Take a look at these beautiful Dogwood Trees instead!
The Camphor tree is an evergreen tree in the Laurel family, and is native to Asia where they are often grown commercially for harvesting camphor oil. They have shiny, elliptical leaves that are light-bright green when first sprouted, and then turn a deep green when older.
It’s small flowers bloom on three-inch-long panicles and are a greenish white to pale yellow color. Small, dark-blue to black berries appear in the spring, and are irresistible to birds. Although most camphor trees reach heights of 25-50 feet, a few rare specimens have grown up to 100-feet tall.
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A Brief History – Cinnamomum Camphora
The Camphor Tree was brought to the American South in 1875 and planted on plantations, where it was grown for the same purpose: harvesting the strong, odorous camphor oil from its leaves and bark.
Cut a stem or crush a leaf in your hands, and you will immediately notice the strong aroma of the camphor oil. The oil is distilled using steam, and is used as a liniment, or balm, in products like Tiger Balm and is a mild pain reliever used in certain medicines. It also works as an insect repellant and to relieve chest congestion and inflammatory conditions.
Camphors are also incredibly long lived trees. The best examples of these ancient wonders are in their native land of Japan. The Shoren’in Shrine in Kyoto boasts a camphor tree that is several hundred years old, and is labeled as a city-designated natural monument. Another camphor at Yamada Shrine in Tottori is considered sacred by people in that area because it was reportedly planted more than 1,000 years ago. The oldest camphor in Japan, however, may be the giant specimen at Kawago in Takeo City. This behemoth is the country’s fifth-largest tree and is supposedly more than 3,000 years old.
Not only are these amazing trees long-lived, they are also capable of surviving the worst that man can throw at them. In 1973, Japan named the camphor the official tree of Hiroshima in commemoration of those trees that miraculously recovered from the U.S. atomic bombing of the city. As these trees sprouted new leaves and bark, they also gave people hope to begin rebuilding their lives.
Unfortunately, there are major downsides to this wonderful tree. The Camphor tree is considered a Class 1 invasive pest in Florida and Texas, which makes it incredibly harmful to those environments. It is spread rapidly by birds eating the camphor berries, and is tough to get rid of, allowing it to easily displace other native shrubs and plants. One such plant is the endangered Florida jujube (Ziziphus celatus), a native species in Florida that is being pushed out by camphor tree.
Camphor trees will grow rapidly their first few years, then slow to 24 inches per year beyond that. In my own yard, I’ve found camphor trees grown from birds dropping their seeds to grow from seed to 4-5 feet in several months. Because camphors are fast-growing and can grow quite large, you should think twice before planting a camphor close to your house, garage, or on a small lot.
If you have one in your yard, it’s best to watch for any “strays” that pop up elsewhere in your yard. Be sure to remove each and every root of a camphor tree if you want to be sure it won’t re-grow in the same spot. Otherwise, you will end up with your own Camphor tree plantation.
Should you plant one?
The consensus online is that…well, there is none. People either love them or hate them. I love them because I get to look at two beautiful camphor trees that are growing on my block from a safe distance. I am saved the trouble of keeping up with their pruning, and I don’t have to deal with constantly pulling pesky camphor “minions” that pop up.
So, my cautious advice is to only plant a camphor if you have the space, time and money to take care of one. Plant one – just one – in the largest space in your yard, where it’ll give you the most amount of shade in the summer. After you’ve planted it, have a professional inspect and trim your young tree to ensure it ends up as a manageable, yet beautiful shade tree.
Pruning your Camphor Tree
Your camphor will require some regularly trimming when it’s young and only occasional attention as a mature tree. Trimming low branches when it’s young will result in a more compact, manageable canopy in the future. Otherwise, the tree will develop a much more open, wide-spreading canopy that has the potential of drooping significantly.
Cut branches back to the where they originate, making sharp, clean cuts flush next to the stems with sterilized pruning shears, as to not spread disease. Pruning branches growing near the base will help develop a single and strong main trunk. Then, prune branches growing on the trunk so one stands every 18 to 30 inches apart.
You can remove damaged or diseased branches from an older camphor at any time of year, and if your tree is outgrowing a small space, simply prune it back in the winter to control its growth. Topping, or blunt cutting your camphor tree is not a good idea, as it will result in far more dead branches likely to fall in the future.
Constant trimming with a chainsaw can result in more problems down the road, and there are instances when careful, professional trimming is in order. Call someone who knows what they are doing so you end up with a safe and healthy tree.
How to Grow Camphor Trees
Tree Site Conditions & Constraints
- Sunset Zones 8, 9 and 12 – 24.
- USDA Hardiness Zones 9 – 11.
- Exposure Full Sun to Partial Shade.
- Moist Soil.
- Clay, Loam or Sand Texture.
- Slightly Acidic to Highly Alkaline Soil pH.
- Salinity Tolerance is Moderate on Coast.
- Seaside Tolerance is Good in Mild Zone.
Pests & Disease Information
- Root Rot
Health, Safety & Environmental Concerns
- Branch Strength Rated as Strong.
- Root Damage Potential Rated as High.
- Allergy Health Hazard.
- Biogenic Emissions considered Low.
- Fire Resistance is Favorable.
- Attracts Birds.
- Extremely invasive in some parts of the U.S.
Camphor Tree FAQ
Are Camphor Trees Invasive?
Yes, Camphor Trees are invasive to many parts of the world, including Florida, Georgia and Texas. Introduced to Australia in 1822, the weed quickly became a noxious weed throughout Queensland and New South Wales. Camphor trees spread rapidly and prevent native plants in these areas from growing and germinating.
How fast do Camphor Trees grow?
Camphor trees will grow rapidly their first few years, then slow to 24 inches per year beyond that.
How long do Camphor Trees live?
The camphor tree can live anywhere from 50 to 150 years. Although, there are many old camphors in Japan, and one even reported to be up to 3,000 years old.
Are Camphor Tree berries edible?
No, the berries are toxic to humans in large quantities. Birds, however, love eating the berries.
From traveling to Italy to learn about balsamic vinegar from the source to homesteading in his own backyard, Michael is ever ready to take on new challenges and think about the world from different perspectives.