Camphor Trees

Camphor Tree Life

I discovered the importance of camphor trees to my life on a night flight from San Francisco, CA to Taiwan. An 18-year-old on my first trip out of the United States, violating all rules of airport eating, I bought and ate dim sum in San Francisco International airport before my first transoceanic flight ever. Sure enough about 4 hours into the flight, I began to feel queasy with 8 hours to go. A Taiwanese flight attendant noticed my despair and gave me a patch to place on my stomach. It had an oddly lovely and comforting scent.

A few days later on the trip, my fellow students and I were assailed by mosquitoes. A wiser student than the rest of us started dabbing a cinnamon red balm on the bites. I smelled that same unusual aroma and asked her what it was. It was one of the great epiphanies of my life to discover that it was Tiger Balm, a soothing ointment of cinnamon oil, clove, menthol, cajuput oil, and camphor.

Camphor tree at exhibit of Nature's Pharmacy, Conservatory of Flowers, San Francisco

On trips to Japan and Hong Kong in the late 80s and early 90s, I would stock up on Tiger Balm, and in the U.S., I would hit Asian markets. But, then amazingly in a wonderful feat of global marketing, by the late 90s, American football great Joe Montana starred in U.S. commercials pitching Tiger Balm. Now the wonderful product in ointment and medicated plaster form is available at my local corner drugstore in California and in 100 countries.

Tiger Balm relieves muscle pains and itching from bites. A Hakka herbalist from China invented it in Rangoon in the late 1870s. His sons marketed it throughout Asia.

According to a study published in the Australia Family Physician, Tiger Balm treats tension headaches as effectively as acetaminophen does.

A recent exhibit entitled Nature's Pharmacy: The Healing Power of Plants at San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers featured the tree. I finally was able to photograph one of the key sources of my favorite elixir.

I have discovered the following facts about the life of this tree.

A Quest for Camphor Trees

The camphor tree is native to China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan. It is particularly abundant in Taiwan where I first discovered Tiger Balm. It prefers to grow along streams with good drainage. The tree is found in forests where there is not too much rain.

Although not native to California, there is a Sacramento camphor tree listed in California's registry of big trees, a list of the largest individuals representing various native and non-native species in California. Apparently the tree lives in Sacramento Capital Park, and I am hoping to seek it out at some point in a quest.

Camphor Tree Symbolism

In Japan, camphor trees often grace Shinto shrines. Their stature, compelling aroma, and long life provide an appropriate mystery for that setting. One particular tree has graced Atsuta Jingu (Atsuta Shrine) in Nagoya in Central Japan for 1300 years.

The camphor is the official city tree of Hiroshima. After the atomic bombing of that city, the trees recovered quickly, a symbol of hope. I have visited that city and remember those trees.

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