The Cedar That Isn’t

Eastern white “cedar”

Sometimes I pester my botanist friend Lytton Musselman when we are in the field by asking him to tell me the common name of the plant he’s examining. He typically says, “I don’t know; all I need to know is its scientific name. Besides, common names are often misleading, if not totally wrong.” That fact, I learned, is especially true in reference to trees.

Did you know, for instance, that North America does not have a true native cedar? “Wait,” you might say. “I have two different kinds of cedars in my yard.” Actually, unless you have an imported tree, you probably don’t.

Wood from the Eastern red “cedar”

In Michigan we call two trees “cedars”: the Eastern red cedar, which is really a juniper (Juniperus virginiana) and the Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), which is really a cypress. I was really bummed to learn that the pencils I love to sniff when newly sharpened and the fragrant, moth-repellant wood in my mother’s old cedar chest were from a juniper! Nonetheless, thousands of old cedar/juniper fence posts planted by farmers are still standing strong all over the eastern United States after decades of weathering because of their resistance to rot. Their red hearts are still firm and fragrant.

Western “cedar”

But what about the big cedars in the Pacific Northwest, dozens of which grace Bluebell Springs, my brother and sister-in-law’s estate on Orcas Island? Well, those are actually Thuja plicata, another cypress. And those grand “cedars” are often found growing together with stately Douglas firs—which are really not firs! They’re false firs, a fact apparent in their scientific name: pseudosuga menziesii. In John Muir’s day, the Douglas fir was often simply called the Douglas tree because no one knew for sure how to classify it. The Latin term pseudosuga actually means “false hemlock,” but to avoid total confusion, forget that fact!

Atlas cedar

Okay, then; if North America doesn’t have cedars, where are the real cedars? First, it’s important to point out that North America does have cedars: mostly Lebanon, Atlas, and Deodar cedars. It’s just that those are imported species—some having been imported for at least a couple hundred years. If you travel around the San Francisco Bay area in particular, you will spot many majestic specimens of these cedars. (They are often in the company of grand old eucalyptus trees, icons of the California landscape that are not native to California. They’re from Australia!) The true cedars are grown as ornamentals all over the world. Two large and awesome specimens of Lebanon and Atlas cedars create a natural portal to the campus of the Pacific Rim Institute on Washington’s Whidbey Island. The Lebanon cedar needles are greenish, and the Atlas cedar foliage is more blue. Otherwise they look almost the same: exceedingly beautiful. And if you have been impressed by the trees that frame Downton Abbey, it was likely the picturesque nature of the old Lebanon cedars that grace its landscape.

Lebanon cedar

Check out the facts about the true cedars at these links: Lebanon Cedar, Cedrus libani, a cedar native to Lebanon, western Syria and south central Turkey; Atlas Cedar, Cedrus atlantica, a cedar native to the Atlas Mountains of Algeria (Tell Atlas) and Morocco; Deodar Cedar, Cedrus deodara, a cedar native to the western Himalayas; and Cyprus Cedar, Cedrus brevifolia, found in the island’s Cedar Valley in the Troodos Mountains.

I was blessed about ten years ago to be able to see huge old Lebanon cedars in their native country. I was traveling with RBC’s Day of Discovery TV team as an associate producer and script writer for the DOD series The Wonder of a Tree. The fourth and final program in that series (viewable online) includes footage shot in Lebanon, and it also features Dr. Musselman, the head of the botany department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk VA—the rascal who has ruined my faith in the common names of trees and other plants and created all this scientific clarity!

O, just ignore the island of Cyprus appended to “cedar” in the list above. “Cyprus” comes from a Greek word that has a number of different meanings and may have nothing at all to do with cypress trees—which also grow on Cyprus!

And let’s not get started with the 27 trees commonly called “ironwood”!