Camphor Tree: Heating Theory and Making Ointment
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Linda Albright
Posted on: February 9, 1999

I have three camphor trees which have "taken over" my attached greenhouse (open to the house via a few windows and a slider), here in Mass. (zone 5). I recently found a web article that was in fact a narrative "poem" about camphor that describes the "sounds" of water running through its capillaries. The plant, apparently, was one of the few survivors of WWII bombing in Japan. These trees were planted in the ground (Yes, they definitely should have been in containers, but they would have "escaped" anyway). The mature trees in Japan give off 5 tones of water per day (according to the web "poem"). I believe them. In the summer I have indoor "rain" condensing on my walls in spite of all windows being open and a small fan running. The winter humidity is around 70%, which is nice. I tried cutting two of the three trees only to have them resprout. The untruncated camphor tree is quite large, occupying 1/2 of the greenhouse, or about 15’ X 13’. Everything in the greenhouse is growing "up the glass". In the beginning I tried pruning the tops, in order to use some insulating shades, but this only causes a lot of small branches that also grow "up the glass". My current theory is that camphor keeps itself warm by bring up warmer water from the ground and evaporating it. Camphor as an "organic heater" plant is a possibility!

It is possible that heat is being pumped via the water from the ground, but evaporation has a strong cooling effect, so I don’t see how there could much net heating going on. Anyway, it is an interesting question in light of the prodigious flow of water.

In spite of this, I do like my camphor, and would like to know how I can make camphorated ointments. My research indicates that pharmaceutical camphor is extracted from 40 year old trees. I have, of course, leaves and small branches from about 15 year old trees. There is surprising little information on this. Can you help?

We have not done it but I can’t see any reason why one could not make an ointment in the same way that other herbal ointments are made. Unlike the commercial products which rely on concentrated camphor (and are therefore are quite strong), a homemade ointment made with a leaf extract will be much milder. However, it could be very pleasing, and certainly worth trying as you obviously have plenty of fresh leaf material to work with.

Here are some general directions for making herbal ointments. It may take some experimenting to make them work for camphor leaves. They come from Andrew Chevallier’s excellent book, "The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants" (available from Richters):

"Melt 140 g of coconut oil with 120 g of beeswax and 100 g of powdered herbs [or 300 grams of fresh leaves]. Simmer gently for 90 minutes in a glass bowl set in a pan of boiling water, or a double boiler, then strain and pour into jars."

This produces a nice grease-free solid ointment that spreads easily. You can play with the quantity of fresh leaves to get the best effect.

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