The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Cinnamomum camphora (Linnaeus) Siebold


Camphor Tree




Lauraceae (Laurel Family); Subfamily Lauroideae, Cinnamomeae Tribe, Cinnamominae Subtribe

Forms and Subspecies


Distinctions were previously made among different forms, varieties, and even species that are now understood simply as chemical races (Morton 1977, 103f.*). The variety Cinnamomum camphora var. linaloolifera, which is especially rich in sesquiterpenes, is still important. Most of the distinctions are geographical in nature (Chaurasia 1992, 896):


Cinnamomum camphora ssp. formosana (Taiwanese camphor)

Cinnamomum camphora ssp. japonicum (Japanese camphor)

Cinnamomum camphora ssp. newzealanda (New Zealand camphor)



Camphora camphora Karst.

Camphora officinarum Nees

Cinnamomum camphora Fries

Cinnamomum camphora (L.) Nees et Eberm.

Cinnamomum camphora Presl et Eberm.

Cinnamomum camphoriferum St. Lag.

Laurus camphora L.

Laurus camphorifera Salisb.

Persea camphora Spr.

Folk Names


Alcanfor (Spanish), baum-camphera, borneo-campher, borneo-kampfer, camfora (Italian), campherbaum, camphero, camphor laurel, camphor tree, camphre, camphrier du japon, chang (Chinese), chang-shu, cusnocy (Old Japanese), cutakkarpuram (Malay), gaara-boon (Tai), ga bur (Tibetan), gaburi (Mongolian), gum camphor, japaansche kamferboom (Dutch), kafr (Czech), kamfer, kamferboom (Dutch), kámforfa (Hungarian), kampferbaum, kampferlorbeer, kanfur (Arabic), kapor, kapur, kâpûr, karpura, karpurah (Sanskrit), karpuram (Tamil), kuso-noki (Japanese), laure à camphre, laurocanfora (Italian), re



In China and Japan, camphor has been obtained from the camphor tree since at least the ninth century C.E. (Morton 1977, 105*). In Asia, camphor has been a much praised aphrodisiac98 and remedy since ancient times (Warrier et al. 1994, 2, 81*).

Arabs were using camphor as early as the eleventh century for all types of medical purposes (Bärtels 1993, 123*). The first camphor tree was brought to Europe in 1676 and planted in Holland (Morton 1977, 103*). Since 1910, camphor has been produced synthetically in Germany from α-pinene (turpentine). In the Roaring Twenties, camphor often was used as an inebriant.



The tree is indigenous to India, China, and Formosa (Taiwan). From there, it spread throughout the tropical zones of Southeast Asia. In the Mediterranean region, it is even grown as an ornamental (Bärtels 1993, 123*).



The camphor tree can be propagated from seed, cutting, scion, or rootstock. Cuttings that contain high amounts of camphor rarely develop roots on their own. The tree is usually grown from the seeds of twenty- to twenty-three-year-old mother trees. The seeds of younger trees are infertile. Seeds will germinate only when fresh, and only a very few of the planted seeds do so. The germination period is approximately ninety days. When the seedlings are six months old, they are trimmed for the first time and transplanted (Morton 1977, 104*). Trees that are older than thirty years yield the most camphor.

In the tropics (Sri Lanka, India), the tree thrives best at altitudes between 1,220 and 1,800 meters when precipitation is between 114 and 368 cm per annum.

Most commercial camphor tree plantations are on Taiwan, but there are others in India and in the Republic of Georgia (Morton 1977, 103*).



This evergreen tree can grow as tall as 50 meters. It develops a gnarled stem (up to 5 meters in diameter) and a projecting crown. It has long-stemmed, leathery, smooth, oblong leaves that are shiny green on their upper surface and dull blue-green on their underside. When young, the leaves often have a reddish color. When rubbed, the leaves smell strongly of camphor; this is the most reliable method for identifying the tree. The greenish white flowers are small and rather inconspicuous. They form axillary panicles 5 to 7 cm in length. The fruits are small, one-seeded berries surrounded by a calyx (Chaurasia 1992, 896).

Because of its habitus, the tree is easily confused with the true or Ceylon cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum verum Presl [syn. Cinnamomum ceylandicum Bl.]). However, the leaves of the cinnamon tree smell (almost exaggeratedly) of cinnamon when they are rubbed. The genus Cinnamomum encompasses approximately 150 to 200 species, most of which occur in eastern Asia. Many of these resemble the camphor tree (Bärtels 1993, 123*; Chaurasia 1992, 884).


Botanical illustration of the Southeast Asian camphor tree Cinnamomum camphora, previously known as Camphora officinarum. (Engraving from Pereira, De Beginselen der Materia Medica en der Therapie, 1849)


Psychoactive Material



—Fruits (fructus camphora)

—Camphor (camphora; depositum in the oil cells, Japanese camphor)

—Camphor tree oil (cinnamomi camphorae aetheroleum, oleum camphorae, oleum cinnamomi camphorae, camphor oil, huile de camphre)


The so-called Borneo camphor (also known as kapur) is from the stock plant Dryobalanops aromatica Gaertn., a member of the resin-producing family Dipterocarpaceae. The odoriferous substance borneol is distilled from its wood. Crystals of pure camphor sometimes crystallize out of its trunk (Martin 1905).

There is also a safrole camphor (cf. Sassafras albidum) and a parsley camphor (= apiol; see Petroselinum crispum).

Preparation and Dosage


Actual camphor is obtained by careful distillation from small pieces of the wood. It crystallizes out and is ready to be used.

The information concerning dosages for internal use varies. Up to 10 g is said to produce pleasant inebriating effects. However, reactions differ from person to person99: “Serious toxic effects occurred as a result of ingestion of 10 to 20 g of camphor; lethal poisoning from 6 g sub-cutaneous” (Fühner 1943, 237*).

In India and Nepal, camphor (kapur) is used primarily as a stimulating additive to betel quids and as an ingredient in incense.

The most important Japanese incense mixture for Buddhist services and ceremonies consists of five or seven coarsely chopped ingredients. The proportions can be varied as desired, so new scent compositions are constantly being produced (cf. incense). The shokoh-5 mixture is a combination of:



Aloe wood

Aquilaria agallocha

White sandalwood

Santalum album


Syzygium aromaticum

Cassia cinnamon

Cinnamomum aromaticum


Cinnamomum camphora ssp. japonicum


The shokoh-7 mixture consists of the same five substances plus ginger (Zingiber officinale) and amber (Morita 1992).

The leaves of the Cambodian camphor tree (Cinnamomum tetragonum) are made into a stimulating drink (von Reis Altschul 1975, 78*).

Ritual Use


In Japan, camphor is an important ingredient in ritual incenses. It is also one of the most important incense materials in the traditional Tibetan Tantra cult (Yeshe Tsogyal 1996) and has enormous ritual significance, especially in southern India. In the region of Nordarcot is a sacred mountain known as Arunachala, “red mountain,” which is said to be hollow inside and inhabited by beings with extraordinary spiritual abilities. A large temple at the mountain is dedicated to a goddess of the same name:


Once a year, the priests celebrate her great festival. As soon as it begins in the temple, a gigantic flame is lit on the peak of the mountain [and] is fed by great quantities of butter and camphor. It burns for days and is visible for miles. (Brunton 1983, 153)


This cult is closely associated with Shiva, the god of ecstasy and inebriants, to whom camphor is also sacred:


According to our sacred legends, the god Shiva once appeared as a fiery flame at the peak of the sacred red mountain. For this reason, once a year the priests of the temple light the great fire to commemorate this event, which must have occurred thousands of years ago. I assume that the temple was built for this festival, as Shiva still protects the mountain. (Brunton 1983, 165)


In Varanasi (= Benares), Shiva’s sacred city, there is a shrine to Krishna in which a golden statue of the young god and lover is venerated. Offerings include flowers (e.g., Cestrum nocturnum), fruits (thorn apples; cf. Datura metel), and dyes. The incense that is burned at this site is camphor (Brunton 1983, 217).

In Malaysia, Borneo camphor had a ritual and magical significance for the indigenous Malay people:


Along with the Hantu belief and the conception that things in nature could be charmed was a peculiar custom which, however, was found only among the Jakun and was known only by the name camphor language (Bhasa Kapor). The natives used the term “pantang kâpûr” (Malay, “pantang” = forbidden) for this, which expresses the fact that it is forbidden to use the normal Malay language while they are searching for camphor. . . . In fact, the Jakun believe that a “bisân” [“woman”] or spirit watches over the camphor trees [Dryobalanops aromatica] and that it is impossible to obtain camphor before a person has made her kindly disposed to them. During the night, it gives off shrill sounds . . . , and this is evidence that camphor trees are near. To placate the camphor spirit, the Jakun give it a part of their food before they themselves eat . . . , eat some soil, and utilize the special language. . . . (Martin 1905, 972 f.)


Since the beginning of the twentieth century, reports of the psychoactive use of camphor have increased:


Indeed, since about two decades one encounters in the upper circles of English society camphor eating men and women, who ingest the agent in milk, alcohol, pills, etc. The same can be found in the United States and in Slovakia. Women maintain that it gives them a fresh complexion. But the true motive appears to be that they achieve a certain state of excitation or inebriation that admittedly, it seems to me, requires a special deposition. (Lewin 1980 [orig. pub. 1929], 302*)


Today, camphor is used in Amazonia by mestizo shamans in connection with ayahuasca.



In Japan, the aromatic camphor wood is carved into ritual masks, e.g., of tengu (see Amanita muscariaibotenic acid) for the gagaku dance festivals (since the second century).

Medicinal Use


Since very early times, the camphor tree has been one of the most important medicinal plants in the Chinese materia medica. In Chinese, the white, aromatic camphor resin is known as long nao xiang, “dragon brain.”100 The Yellow Emperor used it as a remedy for headaches and hemorrhoids:


We do not know whether the congealed camphor reminded them of a brain and was ascribed to the king of animals because it was so rare and precious, or whether the name is derived from the fact that camphor was reserved for the emperor, the “dragon.” (Fazzioli 1989, 23)


In China and Tibet, the camphor tree was long regarded as the “king of far eastern medicinal plants,” for “camphor is comparable to a ‘wild man’ (Yeti, the snow man of the Himalayas)” (Kaufmann 1985, 106*). In Nepal, camphor is used as a stimulant, vermifuge, and digestive agent (Singh et al. 1979, 188*).

In Ayurvedic medicine, camphor is prescribed for inflammations, heart weakness, coughs, asthma, spasms, flatulence, diarrhea, and dysentery (Warrier et al. 194, 2:81*). Camphor is often administered as a sedative, to cool off, so to speak, and for hysteria and nervousness:


Camphor increases prana, opens the senses, imparts clarity to the mind. . . . A pinch of camphor powder is sniffed when the nose is congested, for headaches, and to increase perception. During a puja, a religious service, camphor is burned as incense in order to purify the atmosphere and promote meditation. . . . To treat the respiratory tract, an infusion of camphor can also be boiled and the fumes inhaled. For internal use, only raw camphor should be used, not the synthetic camphor that is frequently sold in stores. (Lad and Frawley 1987, 179f.*)


In Western medicine, camphor is highly important in the treatment of coughs and colds and well as fits of shivering (Morton 1977, 106*; Pahlow 1993, 388*). In homeopathy, camphora is used in accordance with the medical description for such ailments as colic and spasms (Roth et al. 1994, 233*).



All parts of the plant contain camphor oil and essential oils with sesquiterpenes (campherenone, campherenol, camphor derivatives); the white substance camphor (empirical formula C10H16O) is precipitated from this. The amount of camphor can vary considerably. The leaves of Indian camphor trees contain 22.2% camphor.

The composition of the essential oil is complex and varies according to location, climate, et cetera; azulene, bisabolone, cadinene, camphene, αcamphorene, carvacrol, cineole (main component), π-cymol, eugenol, laurolitsine, Δ-limonene, orthodene, α-pinene, reticuline, safranal, safrole, salvene, and terpineol are some of the substances that have been identified. Safrole is often present in great quantities, and large amounts are contained in the wood. The highest concentrations of safrole are found in the roots (Morton 1977, 104*). The leaves also contain large amounts of safrole (cf. Sassafras albidum) (Chaurasia 1992, 896).

The heartwood of the stem contains sesquiterpenes and cyclopentenones (Takaoka et al. 1979). The alkaloids laurolitsine and reticuline are present in the roots (Chaurasia 1992, 896). The seeds contain primarily laurine and an oil whose composition is the same as that of coconut oil (cf. Cocos nucifera). The entire plant contains traces of caffeic acid, quercetin, camphor oil, and leucocyanidin (Chaurasia 1992, 896).



In the medical and toxicological literature, one repeatedly reads that high dosages of camphor can induce hallucinations (Morton 1977, 107*):

“Because the [camphor] tree can become several hundred years old and develop into an immense tree, it enjoys special veneration in China and Japan.”






(1993, 123*)


“The king washed the jewel in purifying water, attached it to the top of a victory banner, enveloped it in the aromatic smoke of camphor and sandalwood, and spread an immeasurable series of offerings out in front of it. He then bathed, put on clean garments, and, after paying his respects to the gods of the four directions, spoke the following prayer: If this incomparable jewel that I have found truly is the perfect and precious wish-fulfilling jewel, so may everything humans and other beings wish for fall like a blessing rain!”






(1996, 39f.)




After ingestion of app. 1.2 g, the following can appear: a pleasant feeling of warmth of the skin and a general stimulation of the nerves, a need for movement, a tingling in the skin, and a peculiar, inebriation-like, ecstatic, mental excitement. “According to one such self-experimenter, the effects were clear and obvious with tendencies of the most beautiful kind.” This condition lasted for one and a half hours. After ingestion of 2.4 g, a need for movement was felt. All movements were easier. When walking, the thighs were raised higher than usual. Mental work was impossible. A flood of thoughts occurred, one idea wildly followed another, quickly, without one persisting. The consciousness of the personality was lost. (Lewin 1980 [orig. pub. 1929], 302f.*)


The inebriating effects of camphor are often compared to those of alcohol:


Following ingestion of larger amounts of camphor, nausea and vomiting can quickly remove the greatest part of the substance. When resorbed, mild toxic effects include central stimulation, dizziness, headache, a state of inebriation like that produced by alcohol, with sensory delusions and delusional ideas; kidney irritation occurs, rarely hematuria. With frequent use of camphor,“camphor addiction” can develop. (Fühner 1943, 237*)


Commercial Forms and Regulations


Since camphor is relatively easy to synthesize, pharmacies now offer almost only synthetic camphor (Camphora synthetica DAB 8). It is an open question as to whether this has the fine qualities of the natural product. In spite of its name, the so-called camphor oil available in pharmacies has had all of its camphor removed.


Shiva is the god of ecstasy and psychoactive plants. Here, he is shown inhaling the smoke of a sacred incense. Shiva is particularly fond of the psychoactive camphor. (Hindu devotional picture, detail; India)


“In Spain, the children carry a small linen sack containing camphor to ward off the evil eye. . . . In India, the child is bathed in smoke to protect against the evil eye. When a newly married Tamil couple returns from their procession through the streets, during which they are exposed to the looks of the crowd, a vessel is filled with camphor and pepper [Piper spp.], the camphor is lit, and the vessel with the burning camphor is swung around the heads of the newlyweds. . . . If a child in India has become ill as a result of the evil eye, then a piece of burning camphor is waved before him. If a Jewish child has developed a stomachache, headache, or fever because of the evil eye, or if a singer has suddenly become hoarse, then some camphor is placed before the door of the house and ignited, if the cattle have become ill from the evil eye, then camphor is burned in front of them.”






(1996, 146f.*)




See also the entries for incense and essential oil.


Brunton, Paul. 1983. Von Yogis, Magiern und Fakiren: Begegnungen in Indien. Munich: Knaur.


Chaurasia, Neera. 1992. Cinnamomum. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 4:884–911. Berlin: Springer.


Fazzioli, Edoardo. 1989. Des Kaisers Apotheke. Bergisch-Gladbach: Gustav Lübbe.


Martin, Rudolf. 1905. Die Inlandstämme der malayischen Halbinsel. Jena: Gustav Fischer.


Morita, Kiyoko. 1992. The book of incense: Enjoying the traditional art of Japanese scents. Tokyo: Kodansha International.


Takaoka, Daisuke, Minoru Imooka, and Mitsuru Hiroi. 1979. A novel cyclopentenone, 5-dodecanyl-4-hydroxy-4-methyl-2-cyclopentenone from Cinnamomum camphora. Phytochemistry 18:488–89.


Yeshe Tsogyal. 1996. Der Lotusgeborene im Land des Schnees: Wie Padmasambhava den Buddismus nach Tibet brachte. Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.