Scented Camphor Trees a Staple of Berkeley Streets

By RON SULLIVAN Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 06, 2004

There’s a piece of furniture in the Art Deco exhibit that just closed at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco that seems to be deliberately designed for maximum use of precious materials. Come to think of it, there are several of those, the silver-plated canopy bed of some maharajah being a standout, if only because someone has to polish that big, complicated thing. But what I’m talking about was a writing desk, gesso’d and gilded with white gold, ornamented with ivory and rock crystal. It was built by one Sir Edward Maufe, out of ebony, mahogany, and camphorwood. 

Friends of mine received a dresser as a wedding gift; not at all Art Deco, but made entirely of camphorwood, and it looks and smells marvelous. The scent is a bit like the red cedar in your mother’s cedar hope chest, with maybe a bit of Vicks Vapo-Rub tang added—but only a bit, surprisingly. Seemed just the thing to store silks and woolens in, and in fact it’s supposed to be moth-repellent. 

Camphor isn’t quite so endangered as mahogany these days, and that’s largely because there’s so much of it living outside its home range of China, Taiwan, and Japan. It’s been planted as an ornamental and street tree in cities all over the temperate world, including here in Berkeley. They’re scattered around town, mostly on streets with old tree plantings; a row of good examples stands on the west side of Berkeley High, and there are several specimens, most in sad decline, in Martin Luther King Jr. Park just across Allston. They have brown, neatly furrowed bark, broad bases and rounded tops, shiny oval leaves and red-to-yellow new growth that looks pretty and optimistic. Their little white flowers aren’t spectacular; the black berries aren’t either, but are good bird chow. 

They’re a staple in cities and on streets of a certain age, and most of us don’t even notice them unless they’re picking up the sidewalk. If you see a tree you think might be camphor, it’s easy enough to be certain: pluck or pick up a leaf, crush it, and sniff. Every part of the tree has that volatile, scented oil in it. 

Camphor’s formal name is Cinnamomum camphora (sometimes seen as Cinnamomum camphorum) and yes, it’s related to the species that give us the spice cinnamon: Cinnamomum verum, Cinnamomum aromaticum (also called Cinnamomum cassia), Cinnamomum loureiroi (”Saigon cinnamon”), and several others. There’s a great heap of names in Latin and the various current languages that probably reflects the confusion, purposeful or not, that accompanied the precious stuff when it was part of the spice trade. 

Camphor oil is used these days mostly for “alternative” medicine and scent purposes. It was used externally for a long time against respiratory problems: Remember “John Brown’s baby had a cold upon its chest/And he rubbed it with camphorated oil”? It’s acknowledged as fairly toxic, and when externally applied or even just sniffed is usually diluted. I wouldn’t mess with it myself, but I freely admit that’s because I’m sure I had the lifetime maximum dose of Vapo-Rub by the time I was a still-wheezy 10-year-old. 

Quite a few of the camphors in Berkeley are senior trees nearing the end of their useful lives. I’m speaking in tree years, of course—think in decades and you’ll be in the right sort of Entish scale. They usually don’t get replaced with more camphors, mostly because they’re notorious for lifting pavement, and as you can see if you look at them in almost any curb strip, get nice wide buttress trunks that are squeezed and constrained by the sidewalks and curbs around them. 

It won’t surprise faithful readers to see that they’re invasive, too, mostly because of those tasty berries. (Some folks complain about black stains on pavements and cars from those, too.) They don’t get away here much, but are causing problems in the warmer bits of Australia and other semitropical places like Florida. Too bad; camphors are nice, stately trees in the right place, and even potentially useful when they give up the ghost, if the remains are milled for furniture.