Saturday, July 27, 2013

Flora of Eagle Rock: Camphor tree, or Cinnamomum camphora

Man praying at a camphor tree at a Shinto shrine in Japan.  [Photo via Dara in Japan]
An Irishman visiting Japan describes his experience of watching people engage the spirits of sacred 400-year-old camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora) at a Shinto shrine:
Sometimes you see a person engaging the spirit of a sacred tree. They approach the tree, clap their hands together twice, and then lean towards the tree and stand for a while with their hands pressed against the bark. Having watched these people and become curious, I have tried it myself. People laugh at tree-huggers, but there is no denying the sense of power and calm that comes from touching a great old tree.
[Dara in Japan.]  You may recall a somewhat similar scene of revering the 神 kami [god-like spirit] that dwells in these ancient trees from My Neighbor Totoro.
Engaging the spirit of an ancient camphor tree's kami in My Neighbor Totoro.  [Via Thirteens Atlas]
The largest known camphor tree in Japan, named 蒲生の大楠 (kamou no ookusu : giant camphor tree of Kamou), is located at the Kamou Shrine in Kagoshima prefecture.  It is believed to be between 1500-3000 years old.  Id.

We have our own stand of these revered trees in Eagle Rock, on Shearin Avenue:
Camphor trees along Shearin Avenue
The camphor tree is native to China south of the Yangtze River, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.  [Wikipedia.]  The Chinese character used for the tree in China, Taiwan, Japan (and older Chinese-character based versions of Korean and Vietnamese) is  or   (pronounced zhang or nán in Mandarin, jeong or naam in Cantonese,   [jang] or   [nam] in Korean, nam or nêm in Vietnamese, andくす [kusu] in Japanese).
On Shearin
Beyond its status as a sacred tree host to kami, the camphor tree holds a special place for the Japanese, as a symbol of survival:
[C]amphor trees are not only long-lived, but they are also astonishingly vigorous and capable of surviving even the worst that man can throw at them. A specimen at the Sanno Shrine in Nagasaki was designated a natural monument by that city on Feb. 15, 1969, because it had survived the U.S. atomic bombing of Aug. 9, 1945. Then, on Nov. 3, 1973, the camphor tree was made the official tree of Hiroshima to commemorate those trees that not only survived the U.S. atomic bombing of the city on Aug. 6, 1945, but then recovered quickly and gave inspiration to the people trying to rebuild their lives.
[Japan Times.]
Under the camphor canopy
Ivy climbing  and coating camphor tree


awordfromjapan said...

I really enjoyed this post, which was very informative. I am delighted that you chose to share my words with your readers.

I see that 楠 is pronounced "nan" in Chinese. This makes sense to me because the right-hand side of the character is the character 南 which means "south" but has the pronunciation "nan". (The left side is, of course, a tree.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, it provided great dinner conversation as it turns out the Camphor trees are often used in Southern China as wood for bureaus or trunks as they leave clothes with a pleasant fragrance. My in-laws spent the weekend reminiscing that when they got married the only furniture they had were two big trunks that my wife's grandfather built for the new couple before they moved north to Beijing. Of course, the dry Beijing air damaged the trunks over time but then they re-used the wood to make my wife's childhood bed. It got poetic to say the least. Thank you.