Cedars – I was wrong

Peter Arthur has been planting trees on his Hawke’s Bay farm for 51 years and shares his wisdom.

In Environment7 Minutes
Cedrus deodara: The true cedars make fine, broad-spreading specimen trees and can reach 50m in height and 3m in diameter.

Peter Arthur has been planting trees on his Hawke’s Bay farm for 51 years and shares his wisdom.

ABOUT 40 YEARS AGO I USED TO write a regular column for the local newspaper about interesting specimen trees to be seen in Napier and Hastings and I decided to write about one of the cedars.

There are four true cedars, the deodar (Cedrus deodara) from the Himalayas, Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica) from Turkey, Algeria and Morocco, Cedrus libani from Mt Lebanon and Cedrus brevifolia from Cyprus.

The first two are commonly seen and easy to distinguish. The deodar has branches that hang down at the tips, the Atlas has branches that point upwards. The growing tip of young deodars can droop right over until almost parallel with the main stem and I have often seen it staked to keep the leader upright but that is not needed. The growing tip will eventually point skywards.

C. brevifolia, which is not such a tall grower, and has shorter needles, is seldom seen and the Lebanon cedar, which looks very like the Atlas cedar is also a rarity in New Zealand. Legend has it that King Solomon built his temple with Lebanon cedar, as was Noah’s Ark and the fleets of the Egyptian Pharoahs. The great stones used to build the Pyramids were rolled into place on cedar logs, and the Crusaders felled them for the construction of their palaces in the Holy Land.

The cedars are the trees most often mentioned in the bible and are frequently seen in church grounds and cemeteries.

However, I discovered A Cedrus libani in front of the Methodist Church in Hastings and was lucky to find paperwork at the church that confirmed it was in fact a Lebanon cedar and not an Atlas cedar. It is difficult to tell the difference between the two and the only certain way is with a magnifying glass.

The Atlas has needles with a minute, translucent spine at the tip. I didn’t know this trick so I relied on the church’s paperwork which said a soldier on leave from Gallipoli climbed Mt Lebanon, collected seed and sent it back to the church gardener who successfully propagated and planted three trees, one of which was in front of the church. I duly wrote an article about it, quite confident it was a Lebanon cedar.

A week later there was a letter to the editor saying I was quite wrong. The writer said there had been a wedding at the church, someone had driven over the tree and it had been replaced with an Atlas cedar.

The Atlas and deodar cedars are both very tough conifers tolerating drought, cold, wind and snow, but not liking wet feet, salt spray or weed killers like Answer, Escort and Metsulfuron. I have killed 10 metre tall deodar trees spraying small gorse seedlings near them. It took a couple of years for the trees to die, but die they did. These sprays leach through the soil to the roots but only affect some trees. I have killed big Acacia dealbata using these sprays. I don’t use hormone sprays but I gather they can also be damaging.

The true cedars make fine, broad-spreading specimen trees and can reach 50m in height and 3m in diameter. They can live for at least 700 years. Some farm foresters have planted smallish, trial groves for timber but they will need to wait about 60 years before harvesting.

There is a blue form of the Atlas cedar, Cedrus atlantica glauca which is the one most commonly seen in parks and gardens, and a very strange weeping form, also blue, Cedrus atlantica pendula which is a grafted tree.

They produce nice, dark, spice-scented timber for cabinet making and joinery. When cut the deodar has a very nicely scented, oily sap. I cut down an 80-year-old tree for firewood, put a match to a ring I had just cut, and the sap immediately burst into flame.

Cedar wood oil can be extracted from sawdust and wood chips by steam distillation and the resulting essential oil is used in cosmetics, perfumes, soap and insect control. It has a nice smell. The Americans use juniper instead of cedar, but still call it cedar wood oil.

Europeans pronounce Cedrus as Kedrus while English use a soft C. Caesar, Kaiser, Czar and King.

There are many other trees commonly called cedars—America has the incense, western red, eastern red, the Alaskan yellow and the Port Orford cedar. Japan has the plume cedar and the Hiba cedar, but botanically none of them are true cedars. The Australians have Toona australis which is called red cedar, plus there are many other trees commonly called cedar, but botanically they are not.

If you want a tough, nice looking tree that will easily outlive you, plant a cedar. It could still be there 700 years later.