Les Harrison is the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director
Natural remedies, some centuries old, are regaining popularity in today’s society. Those seeking relief from the onslaught of seasonal allergies need look no further than the camphor tree.
One of the favorite treatments, with a long-standing reputation for effectiveness at easing stuffiness, is camphor-based rubs and inhalers. The positive effects are immediate, but the rubs must be liberally applied to sustain the result.
Camphor oil, the basis for seasonal respiratory relief, is the product of camphor trees which can be found on old homesteads in Wakulla County. This exotic tree is native to East Asia, where it has a long history as a medicinal resource.
In the early days of sea travel and international trade, the camphor tree’s products were quickly recognized by enterprising European explores as a revenue source. The spice cinnamon is derived from Cinnamomum camphora, the camphor tree. Camphor lumber was the material of choice for sea chest and other storage containers for clothing and textiles. It has the enviable traits of repelling moths and it resists the decaying effects of seawater.
History does not record which explorer got the idea for using the decongestant features of camphor. It could be reasonably assumed it was a lucky happenstance of a seaman suffering a head cold who, out of desperation, sought out a local medical arts practitioner in southern Asia.
The reputation of camphor spread rapidly based on the positive results. Overtime camphor trees were planted in colonies with latitudes relatively near the equator. It was better to have a local source of leaves rather than waiting for the next shipment. Camphor trees reached the southeastern United States in the early 18th century. Most plantations and remote homesteads had at least one tree.
Camphor leaves easily fit into the practice of using a poultice for medical purposes. A poultice is a small bag suspended from the neck of the patient as a means of administering a treatment. Local folk medicine varied from place to place. Some treatments were just pungent and some were absolutely repulsive, but many contained camphor leaves.
Today camphor trees in Wakulla County are relics of a long gone, self-reliant, lifestyle. The spreading branches with evergreen leaves are sometime confused with oaks. In North and Central Florida the camphor tree is classified as an invasive plant which can produce thickets that smother native vegetation. In this case, camphor is not likely to ease the congestion.
To learn more about camphor trees in Wakulla County, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/