By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
The cold and flu season will arrive soon in Wakulla County with symptoms ranging from the inconvenient to extreme discomfort. Tissue boxes will become a common site.
One universal symptom is respiratory distress. It is bad enough to feel achy and endure an elevated temperature, but the stuffed head and chest creates chronic misery for the unlucky sufferer and those in close proximity.
Fortunately, early 21st century medical options can relieve many of the respiratory symptoms until the virus runs its course. Every retailer and pharmacy has multiple shelves and end-caps lined with the latest approved treatments for this seasonal plague.
One of the favorite treatments with a long standing reputation for effectiveness at relieving 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 the seasonal respiratory relief, is the product of camphor trees which can be found on a few old homesteads in Wakulla County. This exotic tree is native to east Asia where it has a long history as a highly prized resource.
In the early days of sea travel and international trade, the camphor tree’s products were quickly recognized by enterprising European explorer for its high-value potential. Also, the spice cinnamon is derived from its bark.
Camphor lumber was the material of choice for sea chest and other storage containers for clothing and textiles, especially woolens. It has the enviable traits of repelling moths and it resists the wood decaying effect 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 practitioner of eastern medical arts.
The conversation may have gone something like this: “I’ve got a bad head cold, doctor,” said the sailor. “Crush two handfuls of these leaves under your nose, breathe deeply and call me in the morning,” and it worked.
The reputation of camphor spread rapidly based on the exceptional results. Over the decades, 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, usually odorous.
Local folk medicine varied from place to place. Some treatments were just pungent and others were absolutely repulsive, but most contained camphor leaves.
Today camphor trees in Wakulla County are relics of a long past self-reliant lifestyle. The spreading branches with waxy evergreen leaves are sometime confused with live oaks.
In Florida the camphor tree is treated as an invasive, but its fruit is attractive to birds and can spread rapidly. Maybe the birds keep their sinuses clear the old fashion way with camphor berries.