Horticultural Highlight: Cedrus

March 19, 2013


It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

                Wallace Stevens

When it comes to giving plants common names, cedar may be one of the more confounding examples. Just consider; red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), salt cedar (Tamarisk pentandra), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), Alaska yellow-cedar (Xanthocyparis nootkatensis), Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), western red cedar (Thuja plicata), incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), ground cedar (Lycopodium complanatum), stinking cedar (Torreya taxifolia), and hiba cedar (Thujopsis dolobrata. Ten different common named cedars, which taxonomically represent ten different genera (and there are even more), but not a one that is a “true cedar.”

True cedars are classified in the genus Cedrus, which is derived from ‘kedros’, the ancient Greek name for these trees. This genus contains only four species, but therein is proof of the old adage, that quality is better than quantity. It is easy to find a positive consensus, from numerous plant aficionados regarding Cedrus. New York Botanic Garden’s Director, conifer expert, and author, Kim Tripp has described them thusly,”…incomparably beautiful,… rarely forgotten,… fresh majesty to the landscape year-round…” Noted plantsman, and author, Michael Dirr, states, “…all the Cedrus are exquisite, lovely trees…”.

Cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani on Central Avenue at Mount Auburn

Cedrus libani, Cedar of Lebanon, is native to Lebanon, Syria, and southern Turkey, often growing at higher elevations. For five-thousand years, this tree has been celebrated.  Fred Hageneder, in his 2005 book, The Meaning of Trees, recounts, “At the very dawn of civilization (about the fifth millennium BCE), in the first city-states of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, we meet the cedar as the World Tree itself, and as the abode of Ea, the god of wisdom and principle deity of that culture .” He continued, “Being inhabited by the god of wisdom himself, the cedar naturally became an important tree for oracles and prophecy.” Much later, it occurs numerous times throughout the Bible, including being used to help build King Solomon’s temple. In the 19th century, Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) would imbue Cedrus into literature with,

O, art thy sighing for Lebanon/ In the long breeze that streams to the delicious East?/ Sighing for Lebanon,/ Dark cedar, for thy limbs, have here increased/ Upon a pastoral slope, as fair/ And looking to the south, as fed/ with honeyed rain, and delicate air

In youth, the habit of these trees may be ungainly, even awkward, but in time, they change to strongly pyramidal, and with maturity, they develop wide, horizontally-spreading branches, with a flattish top, condensed into the phrase “cedar-like.” These evergreen trees range from 40-80-feet tall. The needle-like, leaves are about 1-to-1 .5-inch long, and often are arranged 20-40 in a whorl, upon a short shoot of the stem. As with many conifers, two types of flowers are produced on each tree. The male flowers, are 1-2-inches long, tan/brown, finger-shaped, often more abundant on lower branches, and will expel billows of yellow pollen in the autumn.  The less conspicuous female flowers, usually found  higher on the tree, if successfully fertilized, will produce, handsome, 3-5-inch, egg-shaped cones, sitting upright on the horizontal branches. These cones disarticulate in place, spilling both seeds, and bract scales, to the ground. If you look closely, you may find the remaining central stalk, still attached to the branch. Hence, it is infrequent that one finds whole cedar cones, beneath their trees.

A closely allied species is the Cedrus atlanticaAtlas Cedar, native to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, in Northern Africa. Noted plant collector, and author, Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930), wrote in his classic work,  Aristocrats of the Trees, “…Atlas Cedar differs from that of Lebanon in having a perfectly erect, rigid leader, straight stiff ends to the branches, shorter leaves, and a smaller cone.” Wilson also therein, briefly discussed a third species, Cedrus deodaraHimalayan Cedar, or Deodar Cedar, “Eastward from Mount Lebanon some 1400 miles are the Deodar Cedar forests of Afghanistan which extend continuously eastward on the Himalayas almost to the confines of Nepal….Its altitudinal range is between 3500 and 10,000 feet, … the leading shoots and the ends of the branches are more pendulous and the leaves longer than those of the Cedar of Lebanon, the cones are the same size,…”

Cedrus Atlantica on Heliotrope Path at Mount Auburn

Cedrus deodara ‘Snow Sprite’ at Mount Auburn

On your next visit to Mount Auburn, look for some of our fine collection of true cedars, on Central Avenue, Mound Avenue, Crystal Avenue,  Heliotrope Path, Althea Path, Redbud Path, Willow Court Crypts, Geranium Path, and Pine Avenue.

for it is not so much

to know the self

as to know it as it is known

  by galaxy and cedar cone,

as if birth had never found it

and death could never end it:

–          A. R. Ammons

About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant View all posts by Jim Gorman →

2 Comments

  1. W. Todd Stevenson says:

    I’m honored to have had a Cedar of Lebanon planted behind my site, Beech Avenue at Geranium Path in 2004.
    Seeing them surrounding Downton Abbey on PBS, makes me even more proud, and look forward to watching it mature and grow until it’s time to rest below.

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