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Friday, August 19, 2011


The camphor tree produces a white crystalline substance, camphor, which has been much used as insect repellant. If you have ever smelled a moth ball-that’s camphor. It comes from the wood of the evergreen tree which can grow up to 100 feet and can have a canopy of 6 or 7 feet in diameter. It’s native to the Indian subcontinent, China, Taiwan, Japan and Borneo, and curiously the trees possess different quantities of chemical variants such as linalool and cineole depending on their country or region of origin. Of course it is a relative of cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum).
  It is said to kill fleas as well as repel insects such as moths (personally I’d prefer to use patchouli oil to keep moths away!) I remember that my grandmother smelled of mothballs at the change of seasons, and I never liked the smell.
  Camphor is found in other plants, not just in the camphor tree, called kafar in Arabic and Urdu, karpoor in Sanskrit, the English word camphor seems to come from the mediaeval Latin (derived no doubt from the Arabic) camfora. For example dried rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) leaves contain 20 % camphor oil. The Arabs used camphor to flavour both desserts and meat dishes and it is mentioned in the Quran as being added to drinks for flavour. This must be an example of how our preferences for tastes and smells have changed over the centuries, just as the English herbalist Gerard hated the smell of fresh coriander, so we find it pleasant.
  Camphor has been used medicinally in the Indian subcontinent for millennia and has been used to treat Parkinson’s disease, bronchitis, tetanus, liver and kidney diseases, cholera, breast pains, to cure headaches and as an aphrodisiac. It is used externally as a stimulant and muscle relaxant and as a counter irritant to the pains of rheumatism.
  It has diuretic and diaphoretic (sweat-promoting) properties and is anti-microbial and anti-fungal so useful for skin complaints. In the Middle Ages it was used in lozenges for sweetening the breath. It is also supposed to relieve “the Itch” or genital problems. However, if taken to excess it can result in paralysis and coma, and less severe symptoms such as headaches, convulsions, nausea, vomiting and loss of sight. It’s probably best avoided and stick to using it as an insect repellant rather than for any other uses, unless you use the wood for cabinets, in which case, you will never get woodworm in them.
  In India Hindus use camphor as incense (as they do sandalwood Santalum album) although this is not edible camphor. A distinction is made in the subcontinent between that used for culinary purposes and the one used for incense. It can also be used in embalming and has been used in the making of fireworks.
  In a recipe for Zangcha duck in China’s Szechuan province camphor tree branches and twigs are used for smoking the duck. In the 13th century an Andalusian cookery book has a recipe for meat with apples, flavoured with camphor and musk (still used in Pakistan as a medicine). Another was for Honeyed Dates flavoured with camphor. This demonstrates the Arabic influence on Andalusian cuisine at the time as camphor was widely used in cooking in the Islamic world at that time.
 The Camphor laurel as it is called in Australia was introduced there in 1822 as an ornamental but now it is invasive in New South Wales and Queensland, as its leaves when they fall, prevent other plants from growing. It is also threatening the native eucalyptus trees, which the endangered koalas rely on. The trees’ extensive root systems are wreaking havoc with sewage and drainage systems.
  It was introduced into the USA in 1875 and has become naturalized in the southern states, and is classed as an invasive species in Florida.
  The tree’s essential oils are found in the leaves as well as in the wood, and a few drops of the oil, or camphor crystals mixed with coconut oil and massaged into the scalp strengthens hair and promotes hair growth, allegedly. Camphor is absorbed through the skin and has a cooling effect; or rather it can act as a local anaesthetic. It is one of the ingredients in Vick’s rubs for bronchitis which you might have been subjected to as a child. It is also used in balms for chapped lips, chilblains, skin problems, and a variety of other medications for respiratory problems and is good for colds and coughs as is menthol and eucalyptus.
  In some parts of Asia the old leaves of the camphor tree are dreid and used as a spice and condiment, while the young shoots and leaves are cooked and used as a vegetable. There’s simply no accounting for taste.

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