Across most of the country, you will see, and probably have in your garden, cedar trees. The name ‘cedar’ was given by the early settlers to several tall evergreen trees they found in the new land. In the east we have ‘white cedar’, and out west there are two trees called ‘red cedar’, ‘Alaskan cedar’, and ‘incense cedar’. As well there is ‘eastern red cedar’, which is really a Juniper. What united these trees in the minds of those settlers was that they all have scented wood, and this was strongly associated in Europe with another tree entirely, the Cedar of Lebanon, loved in biblical times, and widely used during that era for the home of King David, and for the Temple of Solomon.
Botanists see a more complex picture, and the trees mentioned above in fact are placed in four other different groups, and none of them are placed with the Cedar of Lebanon. For that tree alone, and its near relatives, botanists reserve the name ‘cedar’, or in Latin, Cedrus. These trees are not only important biblically and historically, they are beautiful, majestic trees worthy of a prized place in any garden where they will grow. Even the ancients were confused, and both true cedars and some junipers were once called ‘cedar’.
These true cedars grow along the southern and eastern areas of the Mediterranean, and as far east as the western mountains of the Himalayas. Although there are many minor distinctions among plants growing in different parts of this vast range, today only three species are recognized. All of them are wonderful plants to grow in your garden, and several have unusual garden forms that bring beauty and variety to our gardens, so let’s look at these true cedars, and see how they can be enjoyed in our landscapes.
Where will true cedars grow best?
Cedar trees grow in mountainous areas, in places where most of the rain falls in winter, and summers are dry. One, the Himalayan cedar, grows with summer rainfall from the monsoons, so it is well-adapted to areas in America like the north-west and the south, where summer is often rainy and humid. The others do well in drier areas, like southern California and Texas. All will survive temperatures below freezing, but not much below minus 10oF, so zone 7 or warmer is perfect, and some, like the Atlantic Cedar, are happy in zone 6 too. They will grow largest in deep, rich soils, but they grow well in most well-drained soils, and of course once established they are drought resistant. They rarely suffer from any pests or diseases that cause significant harm, and they will often live to a great age, becoming more and more beautiful as they develop into grand specimens in gardens.
How to use true cedars in your garden and landscape
The true cedars are very beautiful evergreen trees, with foliage in varying shades of silvery blue-green. Which kinds of cedar you choose to grow will depend on your garden. If you have a larger garden, then the normal varieties are the perfect specimen for a lawn. The best location is in isolation, where the dramatic sweep of their branches can be appreciated best, and no trimming will be needed, as this will limit their natural beauty. For smaller gardens there are many special forms, such as weeping cedar, which make beautiful plants in any garden, staying small and so fitting into the much smaller gardens that many of us have today. If you have almost no space, then these cedars are also popular bonsai specimens, so they can be grown in a container and take up almost no room at all. Although they are not from Asia, they do have a form that takes to Asian-style gardening perfectly, and with training they fit perfectly into such a garden.
Meet the True Cedars
The Atlas Cedar is called this because it grows all across the Atlas Mountains in north Africa, from Morocco east into Algeria. In these mountains it forms vast forests, with trees up to 100 feet tall. In a garden it will be smaller, but it still forms a large tree, often with multiple upright main stems and side branches that grow more or less horizontally, forming a broad but upright tree. The branches are studded with clusters of short needles, less than one-inch long, that vary in color from greenish to rich silvery-blue. Forms with the bluest leaf color are usually chosen for gardens, and these trees are striking specimens, whatever their age. There is a large, mature specimen on the South Lawn of the White House.
For many gardeners, the most desirable forms of this tree are the bluest, so look out for forms sold as Blue Atlas Cedar. This tree also grows in a unique form, with golden tips to the needles. Called the Golden Atlas Cedar, it is a striking specimen tree too, and if you only have room for one, it is going to be hard to make a choice! Since Atlas Cedar also is the fastest growing of the true cedars, adding up to 2 feet a year, you won’t be waiting for ever to have a lovely specimen of this fantastic plant, and its drought tolerance is a real plus too.
The Himalayan, or Deodar Cedar grows though Afghanistan, across much of northern India, and north into Tibet. It is a large tree, similar to the Atlas Cedar, but usually more conical in form. It grows well in damper parts of the country, and is ideal for the north-west, thriving in the deep, moist soils and higher rainfall of those areas. It makes the perfect specimen for a large lawn, or to fill a corner, but make sure you allow enough room, as it will eventually reach 30 feet across or more, and it will grow as much as 70 feet tall.
Because it grows large, the Deodar Cedar is clearly best for larger gardens, but if you have a smaller one, don’t despair, as there are several smaller varieties available. The most striking, and suitable for a small garden, is the Feelin’ Blue Himalayan Cedar, which has an upright form, but weeping branch tips, and a fantastic rich-blue needle color. It only grows about 6 feet wide, and may eventually reach twenty feet, so if you ache for a cedar, but have a small garden, this is the tree for you.
The Cedar of Lebanon is the classic biblical cedar from the Middle East, and it is very similar in appearance to the Atlas Cedar – in fact it takes an expert to tell them apart. It was once widely planted, so you will find old specimens of this tree is parks and large gardens, but today most people choose the Atlas Cedar instead, because of the brighter blue foliage. The enhanced appearance of the Atlas Cedar makes it more suitable for gardens than the Cedar of Lebanon, and with so little difference, whichever you choose you will certainly be growing a wonderful tree that will attract interest from everyone and make your garden more beautiful than ever.