Election Section

When Sorting Out Cedars, Take a Look at the Latin By RON SULLIVAN Special to the Planet

Tuesday August 30, 2005

Alert reader Hal Hoffman called the Daily Planet to note that I’d sent the last tree column, published on Aug. 16, without mentioning the tree’s species epithet. He’s entirely correct, and I’m grateful and abashed; getting that Latin-ish binomial in is a principle of mine. Knowing the scientific name of anything is a key to learning what there is to know about it, from every possible source.  

Oh—California buckeye, the tree I was talking about, is Aesculus californica. 

This Latin stuff (which is rarely proper Latin, but incorporates bits of Greek, place names and surnames and sometimes first names in many other languages, often with a Latin suffix to cap it) is particularly a big deal with plants because plants’ English names vary wildly among places and even families. Then you get to talking with someone from a different culture and language, and you’re in the soup, along with Pan knows only what other ingredients. But if you both know the species epithet, you can figure things out. And even if only you know it, you can more easily find a picture of the plant in question to compare with your correspondent’s memory or specimen and get it all straight. 

And all this matters because we do things like calling a haphazard assortment of trees “cedars” because they share two characteristics: They’re conifers and they have fragrant wood. There isn’t much resemblance between some sets of “cedars;” on the other hand I find some of the true cedars hard to tell apart.  

The North American tree we call “eastern red cedar”—the source of those hope chests some of our grannies had and the little cedar boxes the local furniture stores used to give girls at high school graduation—is actually a juniper, Juniperus virginiana. Western red cedar, Thuja plicata, is in the same Cupressaceae family but not even the same genus; both have scented wood but the scents are quite different, as western’s is much milder and sweeter, with a hint of sassafras. It’s easy enough to find some here; just go into a big enough hardware store and look for fencing boards. The Haida and their Northwest Coast neighbors use it for lots of their remarkable artworks, too. I won’t say “Go sniff a totem pole” but you might be pleasantly surprised if you do.  

In California, we also have “incense cedar,” Calocedrus decurrens. In fact we have a few on the streets, and I’ll write about them one of these days. As you can see from the name, it’s neither a true cedar nor a very close relative of the first two, though it is in the same family. 

We do have true cedars in Berkeley, and they are easy to spot as a group. They’re in the Pinaceae family, not particularly close to those Cupressaceae “cedars.” They’re big when mature, open in structure, pale gray of bark, and have short, usually bluish needles. We have a few of the famous Cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani, which appears on that nation’s flag and of which the Temple of Solomon is supposed to have been built. We have more specimens of the Atlas cedar, Cedrus libani var. atlantica, a subspecies of Lebanon cedar. And we have deodar cedar, Cedrus deodara.  

The first two—or one-and-a-half—come from the Mediterranean region, yes, including Lebanon. Deodar cedar hails from the Himalayas. Its needles have a less bluish cast than the Mediterranean types. All carry their stout cones upright on horizontal branches. All are relatively sturdy, long-lived trees, even in cities. They have lots of chemicals—the source of the wood’s fragrance—that repel their potential pests, including resin glands on the cones that are supposed to repel squirrels.  

Mediterranean cedarwood is sturdy and pest-repellent enough to keep its own integrity, though its reputation for keeping moths out of the woollens may be exaggerated. The Spanish Armada was built of cedarwood, and the ships supposedly lasted longer than even the English ships of stout oak. The lumber couldn’t withstand all storms and wrecks, but the live trees’ structure is actually better than most at that, because it doesn’t form a wind-catching “sail.” Good news in a big tree in a windy place.