For several years, My Florida Backyard has been trying to identify the mystery tree in our front yard. This week, we finally succeeded - by following our nose (it always knows!).
It turns out our tree is a Camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora). While there are plenty of good things about it, there is one major downside - this tree is a Category I invasive tree in the state of Florida. If we were really responsible and dedicated to Florida-Friendly gardening, we'd get rid of it.
But we're not going to.
Camphor tree. It's native to East Asia and was brought here to be cultivated for the oil it produces, which has medicinal properties (something you know if you've ever put Campho-Phenique on a mosquito bite or cold sore). Farmers found it wasn't really commercially viable here - the tree only grows half as tall as it does in its native region, and China and Japan had really cornered the market already anyway. The tree gradually shifted to being sold for residential use, and now you'll find some in most neighborhoods throughout the state. It is a deciduous tree, but it does not lose its old leaves until it's already grown new ones, leaving you with a pretty mix of new spring green and older growth dark green leaves for a few weeks, as shown in the picture. At the same time it produces new leaves, it begins to flower, followed by a profusion of black berries later in the year. A very easy way to identify this tree (and one we finally thought to try after several puzzling years) is to crush and smell the leaves - the camphor odor is unmistakable. In the warmer months, it serves as a host plant for the beautiful Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.
So what's all the fuss about? Camphor tree is very invasive in Florida, which means it has escaped controlled cultivation and is known to be pushing out native plant species needed by our native animals. If you're committed to native Florida gardening, you really shouldn't keep it in your yard - the seeds are easily spread by birds to other areas. According to the Center for Aquatic and Invasive plants, in nearby Polk county the camphor tree is pushing out the native Florida jujube (Ziziphus celatus), relegating it to endangered status. As responsible gardeners trying to make our yard as native as possible, we really should remove this tree.
But... Our tree was probably planted when the house was built, about 25 years ago. It's well-established and provides much-needed shade on the west side of the house. To remove it and plant a new tree would leave an ugly gap that would take many years to fill. Plus, though we've never seen a Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly in My Florida Backyard, it's quite possible they use the upper branches to lay eggs out of sight of the puny humans.
So, we're going to live with the guilt, and with the camphor tree, at least for now.