The first cedar trees were introduced to Britain from the Middle East about 300 years ago and soon came to be regarded as one of the most decorative conifers. Today you can find them planted in parks and gardens in most parts of Britain.
The most popular cedar in Britain is the Lebanon cedar, but there are three other species of cedar, all of which are native to the Mediterranean or the foothills of the Himalayas. Two of these, the Atlas or Atlantic cedar and the deodar, are as common in Britain as the Lebanon cedar. The third species, the Cyprus cedar, is seldom found.
If you want to know more about the cedar in Britain, please read on.
The familiarity of the cedar of Lebanon is probably due in part to the number of times it is mentioned in the Bible, more times than any other tree. The timber was highly valued in Palestine in Old Testament days, and was once used for building Solomon’s palace and the Temple of Jerusalem. The demand for the wood was so big that whole forests were cleared, reducing the landscape to desert.
Now the Lebanon cedar is limited in its natural distribution to south-east Turkey and Mount Lebanon in Syria. The grove of trees on the slopes of Mount Lebanon (after which the tree is named) is thought to be ancient. Legend has it that Solomon’s palace was built from cedars growing in this grove.
The cedar of Lebanon was introduced to Britain in 1638. In the 18th century, with the advent of landscape designers such as ‘Capability’ Brown, it became popular in the parklands and gardens of country houses. Its evergreen habit and large spreading branches added a new shape to the English countryside.
Deodar and Atlas Cedars
It was almost a hundred years before the next cedar species, the deodar, with its paler foliage and drooping branches, was introduced to Britain. The deodar is native to the western foothills of the Himalayas, where the tree is valuable both as a source of timber and for the way that its roots hold the soil firm to control erosion during the monsoon rains. The deodar was introduced to Britain in 1831 and soon found its place in formal garden design.
The introduction of the deodar was followed closely by that of the Atlas or Atlantic cedar, brought over in 1841. This species is native to the Atlas mountains of Algeria and Morocco. It quickly became more popular than the deodar, and is now often seen planted next to a cedar of Lebanon.
They have two foliage forms, and can sometimes be seen in its green-foliaged form but more usually in its blue form, known as the blue cedar. Blue cedars occur naturally in the Atlas mountains and are now particularly popular in suburban gardens.
Also from the Mediterranean, but limited to Cyprus, comes the Cyprus cedar. This species has smaller leaves than the other cedars. It was introduced in 1879 but is seldom seen in Britain, though it forms forests in the Troodos mountains of Cyprus.
How To Tell Cedar Apart
In Britain, cedars are easy to identify since their dark evergreen leaves occur as rosettes, bundles of leaves emanating from short shoots. Other conifers have rosettes of leaves, but only in the larch do they resemble those of the cedar. The larch and cedar are easily distinguished by their cones and the fact that the larch is deciduous.
However, it is not easy to distinguish one cedar species from another. The Atlas and Lebanon cedars are particularly easy to confuse.
A useful way to tell them apart, especially with young trees, is by their shape. The Atlas cedar has ascending branches, while the deodar has drooping branch tips and a drooping leading shoot, and the Lebanon cedar bears its foliage in horizontal layers. I learnt this by remembering Atlas ascending, deodar drooping, Lebanon level.
Leaves and Cones
The current year’s growth of twigs bears single leaves, which drop off after about a year. Thereafter, the twigs develop the rosettes described earlier. These contain between 10 and 20 leaves and remain on the tree for between three and four years before falling.
The leaves of the Lebanon and Atlas cedars are about 2cm (3/4in) long. On the deodar they are longer: 3-5cm (1-2in). The leaves of the deodar are also softer and a lighter colour green.
The cones appear in the autumn. The male cones stand erect on the branches and shed their pollen to fertilise the smaller discreet green cones.
The female cones developinto brown barrel-shaped cones. Unlike those of most other conifers, cedar cones remain upright on the branches as they mature. The ripening process takes two to three years, after which the cone scales are shed to disperse the seed contained inside, leaving a woody stalk standing on the branch.
How To Age A Cedar
The bark of all cedar species is alike: dark grey and smooth when young, breaking into flat scaly plates as the tree grows and the trunk expands.
Because cedars are planted in open parkland rather than in crowded woods the increase in their circumference is about the same from year to year. This growth rate depends in part on the soil conditions and the rainfall, but 30cm (1ft) every five years is average. So a tree with a girth of 6m (20ft) could be aged to be about 100 years old.
Young cedars are fast-growing trees, but as they get older, they slow down and the tops spread out. In Britain they do not grow higher than 40m (130ft), which is less than many other conifers growing here.
Cedars live for a long time, given the chance, but with age they often become dangerous. This is because growing in open parkland encourages the trees to develop large heavy branches that are prone to fall off, particularly if rainwater gathers in the angle between the branch and the main trunk, encouraging rot to set in.
To prevent this from occuring, large branches are often removed from old trees, though it is better to fell the whole tree. Cedar trees much more than 150 years old are frequently dangerous and unsightly and are better replaced with young vigorous trees.
All cedars have a similar yellow-white durable timber that does not warp, making it ideal for furniture and joinery. But its greatest characteristic is its sweet aromatic smell, which in Victorian times made the wood sought after for linen cupboards and chests of drawers.