|An ancient camphor tree, estimated to be over 1000 years old, in Japan|
An ancient camphor tree, estimated to be over 1000 years old, in Japan
Cinnamomum camphora (commonly known as Camphor tree or camphor laurel) is a large evergreen tree that grows up to 20-30 metres tall. The leaves have a glossy, waxy appearance and smell of camphor when crushed. In spring it produces bright green foliage with masses of small white flowers. It produces clusters of black berry-like fruit around one centimetre in diameter. It has a pale bark that is very rough and fissured vertically.
Camphor is a white crystalline substance, obtained from the tree Cinnamonum camphora. Camphor has been used for many centuries as a culinary spice, a component of incense and as a medicine.
Cinnamomum camphora is native to Taiwan, southern Japan, southeast China and Indochina, where it is also cultivated for camphor and timber production. The production and shipment of camphor, in a solid, waxy form, was a major industry in Taiwan prior to and during the Japanese colonial era (1895-1945). It was used medicinally and was also an important ingredient in the production of smokeless gunpowder and celluloid. Primitive stills were set up in the mountainous areas in which the tree is usually found. The wood was chipped; these chips were steamed in a retort, allowing the camphor to crystallize on the inside of a crystallization box, after the vapour had passed through a cooling chamber. It was then scraped off and packed out to government-run factories for processing and sale. Camphor was one of the most lucrative of several important government monopolies under the Japanese.
Culinary Uses of Camphor
In ancient and medieval Europe, Camphor was widely used as ingredient for sweets but it is now mainly used for medicinal purposes. For example, Camphor was used as a flavoring in confections resembling ice cream in China during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th century contains a recipe for Meat with Apples which is flavored with Camphor and Musk. A 13th century recipe for "Honeyed Dates" is also flavored with Camphor.  By the time of the Renaissance, Camphor as a culinary ingredient had fallen into disuse in Europe.
Today, Camphor is widely used in cooking (mainly for desert dishes) in India where it is known as Pachha Karpooram (literally meaning "green camphor" though "Pachha" in Tamil can also be translated to mean "raw" which is "Pachha Karpooram's" intended meaning). It is widely available at Indian grocery stores and is labeled as "Edible Camphor." In Hindu poojas and ceremonies, camphor is burned in a ceremonial spoon for performing aarti. This type of camphor is also sold at Indian grocery stores but it is not suitable for cooking. The only type that should be used for food are those which are labeled as "Edible Camphor."
Camphor Laurel in Australia
Cinnamomum camphora was introduced to Australia in 1822 as an ornamental tree for use in gardens and public parks, and is commonly called Camphor laurel there. It has become a weed throughout Queensland and northern New South Wales where it is suited to the wet, subtropical climate.
It has been declared a noxious weed for the entire states of Queensland and New South Wales. Its massive and spreading root systems disrupt urban drainage and sewerage systems and degrade river banks. Its leaves have a very high carbon content, which damages water quality and freshwater fish habitats when they fall into streams and rivers. The camphor content of the leaf litter helps prevent other plants from germinating successfully, helping to ensure the camphor's success against any potentially competing vegetation, and the seeds are attractive to birds and pass intact through the digestive system, ensuring rapid distribution. Camphor laurel invades pastures, and also competes against eucalyptus trees which are the sole food source of koalas, which are endangered in many parts of eastern Australia.
- " An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th century" Translated Charles Perry, taken from Cariadoc¹s Miscellany
- "In A Caliph's Kitchen" by David Waines
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Cinnamomum camphora.|
- Camphor laurel fact sheet - Produced by the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines
- Campaign to stop the spread of camphor laurels in Australia