Damaged camphor trees at Sabie Golf Club

Michele du Plessis

Sabie Golf Club’s camphor trees are being damaged by unsustainable harvesting of the bark for commercial and medicinal purposes by illegal harvesters.

“They come at night and they strip the bark from our trees. Every night they take so much that they can’t even carry all of it. They are even climbing the trees to get to the bark higher up. This bark is taken to the trust areas where the herbalists boil the bark, making medicine that they sell to people. This muti makes the people vomit and then they don’t have to go to the doctor for anything.” (The person prefers to stay anonymous.)

Even though Cinnamomum camphora has a Category 1 invasive status in Limpopo, KZN and Mpumalanga, it is a much favoured ornamental tree. Camphor trees, endemic to East Asia, is an evergreen tree, growing 10-26m high with a dense canopy. It has smooth bark which is firstly green, then becoming rough, scaly and brownish-grey. The trunk becomes massive and spreading at its base. The leaves are reddish when young, then turning glossy bright green above and blue-grey beneath and three-veined from the base. Tiny yellowish or greenish-white flowers appear from September to November. The tree produces bluish-black berries. Other names are camphor laurel; camphorwood (English); kanferboom (Afrikaans); ulosilina (isiZulu) and rosalina (Xhosa).

Camphor trees are a natural source of camphor gum, an important ingredient in liniments and medicinal oils. It’s mainly herbalists who are interested in the bark, as the bark of the tree has become popular in the treatment of fevers, colds and flu.

While medicinal bark can be collected in a responsible manner, ring-barking (also called girdling) – stripping bark from around the circumference of the trees – is considered an act of vandalism because it causes tree death. The bark contains thin layers of living tissue, especially near the stem itself, which are essential for transporting the products of photosynthesis to the roots of trees. When these layers are removed, as happens when a tree is ring-barked, this transport system is destroyed and the tree dies.

A tree can survive a partial ring-barking or stripping of bark as the bark can regrow over minimally disturbed areas, or increase in size in the remaining healthy areas to supply the tree.

Unfortunately, the unsustainable stripping of bark from the golf club camphor trees was done in a very avaricious manner by irresponsible collectors and if continued, may lead to the demise of these trees.

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