Camphor Tree

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Camphor Tree. Cousin of cinnamon and laurel, you are a sacred tree in the Far East. Your hardwood makes the most precious trunks,  protecting their content against all sort of pests. Your white crystallized blood, called camphor, was once upon a time a very precious substance. Without you, battlefields would have been covered with smoke, billiard would not be born, and insects and pests would keep feeding on winter clothes.  You are also a spice to flavor the tharid lamb stew and some Indian desserts. But what I like the most in you,  dear camphor tree, is the fragrance of your flowers in the warming Spring nights of East China, just like now.

Blooming camphor tree just beside my house in Shanghai. Flowers are unimpressive but their scent is wonderful.

Cinnamomum camphora or camphor laurel is a large evergreen tree native of China, Taiwan, Japan and North Vietnam. The tree can reach up to 30 meters and incredible longevity. Kamou no Ohkusu is the name of the oldest camphor tree in Japan, probably in the world too, estimated to have been planted in year 100AD, nearly 2000 years ago. This sacred tree has a circumference of 22 meters! The leaves, the bark, the flowers and the fruits – similar to small black berries – are all very fragrant and used in some culinary and medicinal preparations.

Kamou no Ohkusu. The oldest and largest tree in Japan, in the province of Kagoshima, Kyushu Island.

The leaves, the bark, the flowers and the fruits – similar to small black berries – are all very fragrant and used in some culinary and many medicinal preparations such as balms and ointments. Trees need to be fifty years old or more to exude the crystallized white camphor from their bark. Today, camphor is usually extracted by steam distillation of the leaves, allowing a recurring harvest without damaging the tree. The distillation of the bark or leaves must be done carefully in different steps. The first fraction to be distilled is white camphor which is the only safe one. After a certain boiling time, yellow and brown camphor oil will be extracted with their share of the toxic compound called safrole. White camphor is the safest of the three but still needs to be used with caution when applied on the skin or ingested. Concentrations of 3% to 11% are recommended. Camphor oil is an excellent antiseptic, disinfectant, insecticide and germicide. Used as an ointment, the oil can cure skin diseases, acne, and give relief to rheumatism, arthritis, and gout. The famous Tiger Balm is composed essentially of camphor and menthol oils and praised for its anesthetic and analgesic properties; in other words, to cool and soothe pains.

In perfumery, the camphor note is sometimes used as a modifier and very seldom at the center of a composition. This week, I chose some fragrances where camphor is easily noticeable:

L’Esprit du Tigre by HEELEY. This fragrance recalls very well the delicate scent of camphor tree flowers, which I like so much. This perfume was inspired by the Tiger Balm and James Heeley‘s travels in the Far East. It was perhaps daring to use the menthol-camphorated scent of the balm in a fragrance, but this is what niche houses are for. Fresh notes of mint, spicy cardamom, pepper, clove and cinnamon decorate the juice in a very subtle manner. The dry-down reveals a groundy vetiver. L’Esprit du Tigre is not for everyone for sure, but I can tell you that no other perfume in the world can be as close to re-create this wonderful scent of blooming camphor trees. This fragrance is in my top 10 list for sure.

Saltus by Liquides Imaginaires is another polarized fragrance like most of the creations of this French alternative house founded by Philippe Di Méo. Saltus is one component of a trilogy of woody fragrances called Les Eaux Arborantes. Saltus embodies the bark and the sap of trees. Top notes are cedar leaves, camphor, and eucalyptus. Heart notes are very usual with storax resin and ethyl laitone which basically smells like milk. The heart represents the sap of the tree. Base notes are more conventional with patchouli, frankincense, tonka bean, and sandalwood. No Liquides Imaginaires without animalic notes, which is here given by castoreum. The nose behind this juice is the Malaysia-born Shyamala Maisondieu, also creator of a few original perfumes for ELDO. Shyamala certainly used her childhood inspiration for concocting this powerful and unusual woody fragrance. Well done!

Hinoki from Comme des Garçons. This fragrance is a special edition commissioned in honor of the trendy magazine Monocle which also sells it on their website. I already made a post last year about hinoki, the sacred tree of Japan. This time it is Antoine Maisondieu, the husband of Shyamala, who used camphor to support the powerful and earthy-woody note of hinoki. This juice is almost a pure woody composition with lots of conifer essences and a solid base of oakmoss and vetiver. The result is surprisingly very light and very wearable, especially for men, but I know some of you ladies who love woodsy aerial accords, like found in this fragrance.

I wish that some other daring perfumers could use this note more often, as it pleases and comforts my nose and soul. Perhaps, having spent half of my life in Asia has influenced my taste, who knows?

I wish you a wonderfully fragrant week. Cheers!

Laurent

 

 

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