Centuries ago, the unsanctioned cutting of a camphor tree in China or Formosa (Taiwan) was punishable by death. That's because camphorwood (Cinnamomum camphora), native to those countries as well as to Japan, was reserved for sacred ceremonial items, such as the Chinese mu-yu drum used in temples. But chang-mu, as the wood is called in China, eventually flourished in foreign trade. Ship captains and other seafarers sought it for their sea chests to ward off moths.
Perhaps it was sawyers cutting camphorwood who discovered that its scent also opened up stuffy noses. Word of camphorwood's reputedly powerful medicinal properties spread to Europe and America, and soon even common folk considered it a cure-all. Indeed, the medicinal compound called camphor, refined from the tree bark, eventually found its way into ointments for the relief of muscle spasms and nasal congestion.
Today, chemical substitutes replace much natural camphor, but stiff competition still erupts between lumbar buyers and drug manufacturers when camphorwood comes up for sale. While you won't find camphorwood at lumberyards, it occasionally finds its way to dealers of exotic woods. If you happen upon some, you'd be wise to work it into a silverware chest—camphorwood keeps silver from tarnishing.
The camphor tree, an evergreen, grows slowly. It takes 50 years or more before one becomes large enough to distill camphor from its bark. In that time, the tree can reach 100' tall, with the spread of its branches frequently double its height. A mature tree also develops many large burls, which, as veneer, become marquetry and facing for very expensive paneling.
Photograph: Bob Calmer
Illustration: Jim Stevenson