Tarchonanthus camphoratus (camphor bush)
An aromatic shrub from Africa and Saudi Arabia, camphor bush is used in traditional medicine and also valued for its wood.
The camphor bush's scented (winter) fruit, Jan Celliers Park, Pretoria (Photo: JMK, licensed under CC by 3.0)
Tarchonanthus camphoratus L.
camphor bush (English); leleshwa (Swahili, Maasai)
Least Concern (LC) according to IUCN Red List criteria. Widespread and common.
Dry forest, bushland and grassland.
Traditional medicine, fuel, traditional construction, ornamental.
None, though in South Africa splinters of the wood are reputed to be poisonous and cause wounds that are slow to heal.
About this species
This aromatic shrub regenerates vigorously after cutting or burning and can become a weed where farmers have cut down the original vegetation to make pastureland. It can grow in large stands and is so well-known and common in Kenya that it has given its local Maasai name (leleshwa) to a luxury camp in the Masai Mara, a winery in the Rift Valley and even the Nairobi suburb Kileleshwa! Cattle and antelope browse the leaves, but this gives a strange taste to their milk.
Geography and distribution
A widespread species, occurring from Saudi Arabia all along the eastern flank of Africa down to South Africa (with a big gap in central Tanzania and northern Zambia). Over most of its range, it is found at 700 - 2,700 m above sea level, but in the far south it can be found as low as 30 m above sea level.
Camphor bush occurs in dry forest in the northern portion of its distribution, but elsewhere it grows in bushland and bushy grassland. It can be locally dominant.
Overview: An evergreen shrub, occasionally growing into a small tree, up to 9 m tall. The rough, fissured bark flakes off in long strips smelling strongly of camphor. Trees are either male or female.
Leaves: Aromatic, usually about 12 × 2 cm, smooth and green above, felted with dense grey or white hairs below.
Flowers: Small and white, in many small flower heads (capitulae) forming leafy sprays that are either male (up to 15 cm long) or female (up to 35 cm long).
Fruits: Minute (about 4.0 × 1.5 mm), with dense, cottony hairs up to 3 mm long, and crowned by the dried flower.
Camphor bush is used in traditional medicine for treating various chest ailments, fevers, coughs, asthma, bronchitis, whooping cough, toothache and chilblains and for unblocking sinuses.
The wood is close-grained, hard and heavy and is used in hut construction, bushmen’s bows and arrow-shafts, and punt poles (used on the Pongola pans in South Africa). It is popular for spear-shafts and walking sticks, and fence posts made from this wood are said to last for thirty years.
In South Africa it has been used for musical instruments, cabinet-work and boat-building. It is popular as firewood, as it will burn while still green.
In the past, camphor bush leaves were chewed with the aim of producing a slight narcotic effect. Leaves are good for cattle to browse, and bees produce a nice honey from camphor bush flowers.
Kew’s research into insect-repellent properties
Traditionally, camphor bush has been used as an insect repellent, its leaves being used as bedding, deposited in granaries or rubbed on the hair to keep away lice. Laboratory tests carried out at Kew have shown that the plant contains substances that adversely affect insects. This research also found that camphor bush contains substances that are toxic to living cells.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
A collection of camphor bush seeds is held in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.
This species at Kew
Pressed and dried specimens of Tarchonanthus camphoratus are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of some of these specimens, including some images, can be seen online in Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue.
Specimens of camphor bush leaves, wood and bark are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection in the Sir Joseph Banks Building, where they are available to researchers by appointment.
Beentje, H. J. (1994). Kenya Trees, Shrubs & Lianas. National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi.
Beentje, H. J. (1999). The genus Tarchonanthus (Compositae – Mutisieae). Kew Bulletin 54: 81‒95.
Coates Palgrave, K. (2002). Trees of Southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
Curtis, B. & Mannheimer, C. (2005). Tree Atlas of Namibia. National Botanical Research Institute, Windhoek.
Kalema, J. & Beentje, H. J. (2012). Conservation Checklist of the Trees of Uganda. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Kew Science Editor: Henk Beentje
Kew contributors: Monique Simmonds
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell
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