Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens 1445 Millcoe Road, Jacksonville, FL 32225  

Photo: Chuck Hubbuch

Two species of Camptotheca grow in Asia. Only one has a commercial value, Camptotheca acuminata. The Chinese name for Camptotheca acuminata translates to “happy tree”. Traditionally, it was used in China for a wide variety of problems including colds, cancer, liver disorders and digestion issues. In scientific studies, it was found to contain compounds for medicines to treat cancer in the brain, liver, lungs, ovaries, digestive tract and for leukemia. Also, it inhibits the replication of certain viruses. The reports I read say that the natural compound is highly toxic (so don’t do this at home) but several compounds derived from it in the lab are safe and effective. According to one report, the estimated commercial value of these compounds was one billion dollars in 2003.

Camptotheca is in the same plant family as tupelo, the Nyssaceae. The happy tree is an attractive, deciduous tree with large oval leaves. The leaves have deeply impressed veins. The trunk is straight with smooth gray bark that becomes furrowed with age. Young trees grow rapidly into an upright conical shape. The small, white flowers are produced in spherical clusters that remind me of the flowers of our native buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis. The cluster of seeds is also spherical and turns yellow before it ripens and falls off.

The happy tree is cultivated as an ornamental tree in China. Happy tree seedlings and seeds can be found in mail order sites. They are uncommon in Florida but grow well here. They are at their best in a moist, organic soil in full sun. Reports from China state that they grow to sixty feet or more in height. The young tree at the Jacksonville Arboretum and Gardens grew from seeds donated by the Armstrong State University Arboretum in Savannah, Georgia in the late summer of 2015. Already, the tree is over six feet tall. You can see it at the south end of the Lake Loop, not far from the pavilion.

Our native relatives of the happy tree, the tupelos, have a few traditional medicinal uses. Uses have included causing vomiting and treating intestinal worms. None of the traditional uses of the tupelos has translated into modern medicinal uses.

By Chuck Hubbuch