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Why are So Many Trees Called ‘Cedar’?

August 17, 2020

Written by Dave G.

You know how it goes – a quick trip to the garden center, real or online, for a few plants. You get there and ask for what you want. Now sometimes it’s no problem, but there are other times when you might be met with a frown, or a confusing array of choices from a simple online search. What you thought was a simple matter turns out to be a lot more complicated. One frequent example of this are the plants called ‘cedars.’ These evergreens are popular garden trees, sometimes used for hedges or screens. If you do anything with lumber you will also know that there are also several kinds of wood called cedar. When you come home with your ‘cedar’ tree it could easily turn out to be something very different from the ‘cedar’ you wanted, or the one your neighbor is growing.

So. What is a Cedar?

First of all, what is this word ‘cedar’ anyway? It is certainly the name of a tree – kedros in ancient Greek, cedrus in the Latin of the Romans. The tree it names is found growing in the Middle East, in the country we today call Lebanon – it’s the Lebanese Cedar, a tree mentioned in the Bible numerous times, for example, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like the cedar in Lebanon” (Psalm 92:12). This large, graceful tree (above) is always very worth growing, if you have room for one, and live in a mild or warm zone. One characteristic of this tree is the pleasant smell of the leaves and wood, and just like the way ‘rose’ is both a flower and a perfume, ‘cedar’ became a smell too, familiar to many people from those old cedar chests and cupboards which repel moths.

American Cedar Trees

Fast-forward to the days of the first settlers and explorers in America. When they encountered new trees that had evergreen leaves and a similar smell, they quickly became ‘cedar’ too. Confusingly, lots of evergreens have that similar smell, and so we ended up with a bunch of trees, some superficially similar, others looking different, all with the name of ‘cedar’. In the east we have ‘white cedar’. Out west we have ‘red cedar’, and we also have ‘eastern red cedar’, a very different tree. Then we have ‘incense cedar’ in California, ‘Port Orford Cedar’ in Oregon, and ‘Alaskan cedar’ further north.

Around the World

Travelling a little further we find ‘Italian cedar’, ‘Japanese cedar’, ‘Bermudan cedar’, ‘Chilean cedar’, and ‘New Zealand cedar’. Heck, you could design a world trip just to visit these different cedar trees!

If you enjoy the occasional cigar, that nice wooden box they come in is usually made of ‘Spanish cedar’, which doesn’t come from Spain, and is an evergreen flowering tree, not at all like most of the other cedars. Neither is the ‘Ceylon cedar’, the ‘rum cedar’, or the ‘salt cedar’, and certainly not the ‘ground cedar’, which is a kind of moss. Confused yet?

So Why Has This Happened?

The situation with ‘cedar’ is not at all the only time we have these kinds of confusions. Putting names to plants is always a challenge, and gardeners everywhere struggle with it. For all their complexity, this is where those long scientific names come in useful. Once people started to study plants more closely, and especially after exploration brought back thousands of new one to the tiny world of Europeans, a better system was needed, based on detailed similarities in flowering. Call them scientific, botanical or Latin names, these names of two words, often long strings of syllables, take some mastering, but they save the day, because each one is linked to a distinct plant, and organized in related groups, acting like a map of the plant world. Let’s use some botany to sort out some of these ‘cedars’ and give us some definitive names for them.

True Cedars

That original Cedar of Lebanon, and its close relatives, are often called ‘true cedars’, and they are called by botanists ‘Cedrus’ – the old Latin name for them. Besides the original, properly called Cedrus libani, if we move westwards there is Cedrus atlantica, the Atlas cedar from the mountains of Morocco. Head east and you will find Cedrus deodara, the Deodar cedar, a native of the Himalayas. ‘Deodar’ is a variation of ‘cedar’, used in North Indian languages. All of these trees have short needles, showing they are related to pine trees – they certainly look very different from all the other ‘cedars.’

Eastern Cedars

Across the eastern states grow two very different ‘cedars.’ One is widely seen as hedges and clipped plants, with varieties varying from round globes to upright pillars. This is the eastern (or northern) white cedar, Thuja occidentalis. Notice it has a different first name (equivalent to our surnames) from the true cedars. This tree is also often called ‘arborvitae’, which means ‘tree of life’, since it saved some of the first French explorers from dying of scurvy, when it was fed to them as tea by native people.

As well there is ‘eastern red cedar’, which is actually a juniper tree – Juniperus virginiana. This tough species is a great choice for hot and dry locations, with that same cedar fragrance.

Western Cedars

When we move out west, we find ‘western red cedar’, which is not another juniper, but Thuja plicata, which now you can see is a relative of the white cedar. Go north and we find that Alaskan cedar is Cupressus nootkatensis and turns out to be a relative of the Italian cedar of Tuscan landscapes, Cupressus sempervirens. That Port Orford cedar, called Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, has a close relative on the opposite coast, Chamaecyparis thyoides, the Atlantic white cedar.

Other Cedars

The justly-famous Japanese cedar turns out to be in a group of one, and its proper name is Cryptomeria japonica – or Sugi in Japanese. It has many small forms often found in gardens. Our eastern red cedar is a Juniper, and it’s not the only Juniper called ‘cedar’. The Bermuda cedar, Juniperus bermudiana, is another, and so is the Mountain cedar, Juniperus ashei, of Mexico and the south-central states. The prickly cedar of the Mediterranean is yet another, Juniperus oxycedrus, a plant rarely seen in gardens. The ‘Spanish cedar’ is Cedrela odorata, a relative of the Mahogany tree, while ‘bay cedar’ surprises us by being a tropical shrub with yellow flowers, called Suriana maritima. As its name suggests it grows along the shoreline, and its seed pods float on the sea for months, sailing to new shores. Yes, it does have that same aromatic smell.

There You Go!

You can see by this brief survey that there is probably more confusion than clarity in the name ‘cedar’, considering how many very different plants are called it. So, when you go cedar shopping, perhaps it would help to stick to the botanical names, or who knows what you will end up with in your garden!

 

***If you want to check the availability of any of the plants mentioned here, go to our Home Page, click on the ‘Search’ button in the upper right, and type in your choice – both common names and botanical ones will work. If, sadly, you find the item sold out, click on the ‘notify me’ box beside the size you want, and you will get an email the moment that plant is available again – it’s easy.