Camphor leaves

The leaves and berries of a camphor tree.

COURTESY

Editor’s note: Hurricane Ike caused the loss of 40,000 trees on Galveston Island. The Galveston Island Tree Conservancy was formed to address that loss and has replaced over 16,000 through grant-funded plantings and giveaways.

Winter’s shorter and cooler days are upon us and many of our trees have lost their leaves. Bare branches can be lovely, but we do miss the green.

One very common local tree that provides greenery year-round is the camphor (Cinnamomum camphora). It is a deciduous tree that does not lose old leaves until new ones emerge, resulting in a mix of light green and older, darker leaves for a few weeks each spring.

Camphor is a fast grower that generally reaches 25 to 40 feet tall and produces shade year-round. The leaves are thick and glossy with the distinctive smell of camphor when crushed. Spring brings bright green and rusty burgundy color foliage with masses of inconspicuous white flowers. Small berrylike fruits turn black in fall. Its pale bark is very rough and vertically fissured.

This Asian native was introduced to the United States around 1875, and is naturalized in many southern states. However, it is considered invasive as it crowds out native vegetation due to its rapid growth rate and tolerance of a wide range of growing conditions.

Camphor prefers fertile, sandy and well-drained soil, and accepts full sun or partial shade. Established trees are quite drought tolerant. This sturdy storm-resistant tree also makes a good windbreak. Birds disperse seeds widely and you probably have seedlings in your garden as you read this. Be sure to pull them up before they grow large enough to be resistant to removal.

Camphor fruits, leaves, and roots are toxic to humans in large doses. However, birds enjoy the ripe berries, and bees and butterflies enjoy the spring blossoms. The tree serves as a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.

Camphor has enjoyed a multitude of uses. It has served for centuries as a culinary spice, a component of incense, a medicine and an insect repellent. It is also used as a solvent, a fragrance in perfumes, as well as in cleansers, soaps, disinfectants and household cleaning products. It has been used to treat everything from parasites to toothaches, and from hysteria to epilepsy. Today, camphor is mainly used in creams and ointments for rheumatic pain, neuralgia, arthritis, sore muscles, sprains and bruises. In addition to all these uses, the wood is insect-resistant. Its color and physical properties make it popular for woodworking and veneers in fine cabinetry.

While camphor may sound ideal for Galveston — and it does have many positives — there are far better choices. The tree’s desirable traits are offset by its invasiveness, aggressive growth, and damaging effects on wildlife and natural communities. If you already have a large camphor that produces shade, you will probably want to keep it as it would take years for a more desirable tree to reach that size. However, if you are planning to add a tree to your landscape, consult the Texas tree selector at texastreeplanting.tamu.edu. Find one that is right for you and put the right tree in the right place.

Margaret Canavan is a Galveston resident, a Galveston County Master Gardener, and a member of the Galveston Island Tree Conservancy Board.

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