Wednesday, April 14, 2010

That's Good, That's Bad

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.

First, a few facts about the 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.


  1. It's the same over here with popcorn trees (Chinese tallow). They are extremely invasive, but the birds love their "popcorn" seeds. We've cut many down, but we would also destroy valuable shade if we cut them all down.

  2. Oh my. We gardeners create such dilemmas for ourselves and those who come behind us. Just as your camphor tree, so many of these invasive species are truly beautiful. Not to show my AGE or anything but my mother's garden was hedged with melaleuca trees and we had a Brazilian pepper tree in the backyard. I bought her a camphor tree for the front yard as a Mother's Day gift. Her whole garden was probably responsible for the extinction of many Florida natives. All was done by a woman who loved nature and never would have planted these if she had known the facts about them. Just shows the importance of using the knowledge we now have available to us about plants.

  3. This is indeed a difficult choice. I don't know that I would get rid of it either. Your defense about the butterfly is a good one.

  4. There are so many beautiful old specimens of camphors around my area. Their beauty truly rivals the live oak, in my opinion. I had one at my very first house (back a couple decades ago). The house was actually in Polk County that you mention. The tree was huge, beautiful, and provided a lot of shade, but I was always pulling seedlings out of the grass and flowerbeds. I wasn't aware at the time that it was invasive. Strangely, I've seen them for sale here in the last decade. I never knew it was a butterfly host!

  5. Oh, my goodness! I just realized you are Floridagirl as well!

  6. I wouldn't remove it either. It takes so many years to get a tree that large. I've heard that if you have a camphor tree, you won't have roaches...there's a benefit! ;-)

  7. Hi!
    We have the camphor tree over here in SE Texas, but it is not invasive since we have less rain.
    I have one in my backyard and the Spicebush Swallowtails depend on it for raising their young. I see these swallowtails about 20 times a day hovering around my backyard. The actual wild spicebush species are not common and indeed I've never seen one. I'm leaving the tree alone since it is a small understory tree. The tallow tree is a different story and very invasive here.
    David & Melanie :-)

  8. I'd remove this tree pronto if it weren't for the $2000 price tag. It's a trash tree!

  9. most of the people living in FL qualify as invasive. Should we just allow Seminoles to breed, or is a JuJube more valuable than Camphor? Don't be a plant racist!