Ancient History of Camphor Tree | How Camphor is Made

In my previous story on camphor trees, we saw how to grow camphor trees both in containers or ground. But do you know the useas of camphor? Or do you know how camphor is made?

How camphor is made?

Camphor that we buy from stores can be obtained either natural way from camphor laurel trees or synthetically in factories or laboratories. Natural camphor is not very famous because it is very easy to make the camphor artificially and more importantly, making camphor from trees requires cutting down old trees. To get camphor from trees, the tree has to be at least 10 years old but usually much older trees are cut down in this process. These old trees are cut down and their trunk is peeled off to get clean inner wood. The wood is then cut into small pieces or wood chips. These wood chips undergo a distillation process. What it means is that the wood chips are boiled and the camphor mixed steam is moved to another water-filled pot using a hollow pipe. The steam is when cools down, camphor particles solidify and float on the water. The clumps are then collected and made into cubes or shelves. And that is the camphor that we use.

Is camphor tree or camphor laurel the only tree from which camphor can be made?

Camphor is an organic compound that is also found in some other trees of the laurel family, like East African Camphorwood or Camphor Basil. Synthetically, it is made from the oil of turpentine.

Uses of Camphor

Camphor is part of many medicines including pain reliever ointments, balms, nasal decongestants, cough remedies, and anti-itch creams.

Accidental, ingestion of camphor can result in camphor toxicity. It passes through the placental barrier so pregnant women should avoid ingestion of camphor-containing products. The same applies to infants. Camphor-containing products should be avoided by children who have a history of febrile convulsions or other convulsions as according to some researchers some animal studies showed it caused convulsions. The daily maximum human therapeutic dose is approximately 1.43mg/kg [reference] You must be wondering how infants can get camphor intoxication. One of the most common causes of intoxication is applying camphor-containing ointments to children’s noses. Accidental ingestion of such products by young children is also very common.

The Story of Japan’s Largest Camphor Tree

Ancient Tales and Folk-lore of Japan, by Richard Gordon Smith, [1918]

The story is like this.

A very long time ago in the 1600s, in a small village of Japan, Yakubi-mura, there was a shrine in the middle of the grove. This grove was in Nekoma-Myojin forest. An old man named Hamada Tsushima was the caretaker of this grove.

In this grove was one enormous camphor tree that was exceptionally huge and was considered as a holy tree by the villagers. This humongous tree was almost 150 feet tall and nobody really knew its actual age.

One day, a large fire broke out in the Homyo-ji Temple, in the district of Yedo, today’s Tokyo. The fire caused a lot of destruction and burned down many houses in the district of Yedo. One of the greatest lords, Lord Date Tsumnamune of Sendai lost all of his seven palaces and houses in that devastating fire. A famous house building contractor named Kinokunio was hired to build a new palace for the Lord Date by one of his officials Harada. Harada wanted to build the best palace for his master Lord Date, a palace with the rarest woods and the ceilings of unjointed camphor-tree boards. Kinokuniyo had access to all the materials and rarest woods needed to build the dream palace except one, the huge-sized camphor tree. Money was not a problem but getting that large-sized camphor tree required cutting down some old tree and whatever few camphor trees were available were sacred. It was not easy to cut down trees without the permission of the local authorities or hurting the feelings of many believers. This is very interesting to know that the trees were considered special and cutting them down was regulated. Even in that ancient era, old trees were valued and efforts were taken to preserve them.

Kinokuniya decided to somehow get the ancient 150 feet camphor tree from that in the forest of Nekoma-Myojin, in Iwaki Province. He knew it was not an easy task but the reward that he would have got was hard to resist. He found out the person who was managing that forest, Fujieda Geki, and offered him some money, and a promise to give more money and build a brand new house for him in exchange for some trees from the forest Nekoma-Myojin. But very cunningly, he hid the fact that he wanted to cut down the sacred camphor tree. The manager of the forest introduced Kinokuniyo to the heads of the four villages near the forest of Nekoma-Myojin. They all agreed to offer permission to cut down some trees from the forest to build a new palace but warned him to not touch the sacred camphor tree.

Kinokuniya agreed not to cut down the sacred camphor tree but while preparing the approval document cunningly, changed some words.

So instead of saying, “ The large camphor tree must be spared”, it mentioned, “All the camphor trees must be spared except the large one that was considered to be sacred in the Nekoma-Myojin forest”. None of the four leaders realized the cunningness of Kinokuniya and they signed the document unanimously and unknowingly.

Finally, Chorogo, a foreman with his team came to cut down the tree. When the truth came out on the day of the cutting of the tree, it was too late. The caretaker of that tree, Hamada Tsushima tried to stop them, but a deceptive but valid agreement was already signed and there was no turning back. The workers cut down the tree and that 150 feet tree finally fell down on the ground. I’m sure many of us must have seen or faced something like this before. I have witnessed a huge tree being cut down and it was painful to watch it. It is not easy to regrow trees that easily. The caretaker Hamada felt so heartbroken that he sacrificed his life by cutting himself open. But before he left his life, he warned Kinokuniyo that his spirit would come back to save that tree and take vengeance.

After the huge tree was cut down, the workers couldn’t move it. They tried very hard but the branches of the tree started coming alive and grew back fast, injuring the workers. Many of the men got almost crushed in between those growing branches. Finally, the order to not cut the tree or move it from that location arrived from the board of councilors in Sendai and the tree stayed where it was.

Just in a few days, Kinokuniyo fell sick and mysteriously died after a shampooer visited him. The shampooer disappeared mysteriously and couldn’t be found. It is believed that the caretaker’s Hamada Tsushima’s spirit came to kill the contractor. The foreman who was sent to cut the tree down built a new shrine where the tree fell down and assigned a new caretaker.

What a thrilling story! Throughout the world, in many cultures, religions, and countries, there are so many amazing stories that give immense importance and respect to the trees. As I always say, the love for trees and nature is universal; there are no divides. That is one of the few things that are keeping the world together.

(This is a short version of a story from a book

Ancient tales and folklore of Japan

by Gordon Smith, Richard, 1858–1918Mo-No-Yuki

The full original version can be found here. )


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *