by Eric Meier
Perhaps no term is more broadly applied and nearly universally accepted in the world of wood than that of “cedar.” Sure, there are hopeful terms such as “rosewood” or “mahogany” applied to misfitting woods like a glass slipper on one of Cinderella’s step-sisters, but that’s not quite the case with cedar. Despite more than a dozen or so cedar species coming from a number of divergent genera including both softwoods and hardwoods, there seems to be far less rancor and controversy as to what is (or is not) a proper cedar species.
[image credit: Cedar of Lebanon vase by Steve Earis]
Nonetheless, given the broad acceptance of the cedar label, the term can sometimes bring confusion when no qualifying adjectives (usually a color or locality) are used to describe it. For instance, instead of referring to a birdhouse made of Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), one might simply say that the birdhouse is made of “cedar” without specifying the type. In these cases, it becomes helpful to learn how to tell different species of cedar apart.
But before we get into the nitty gritty details, it might help first to take a look at the bigger picture of just what is meant by the term “cedar.”
Hallmarks of cedar wood:
1. Cedar is aromatic. Simply put, the stuff smells good. I have been (and remain) incredulous of any attempts to boil all the manifold odors found in the different cedars of the world into one typified “cedar smell.” The scents of the various cedars are as different as the tree species themselves. Additionally, although there are a lot of woods that have a characteristic odor, that of cedar tends to linger much longer than most other woods.
2. Cedar is rot resistant. This can vary with each species, but on the whole, the wood of most cedar species are considered at least moderately durable in terms of rot resistance, and are frequently used for exterior applications.
3. Cedar is relatively lightweight and soft. While there may be a little bit of variation from one end of the spectrum to the other, on the whole, one common expectation is that cedar will be lightweight and generally cooperative when it comes to working with tools.
4. Cedar is (commonly) reddish brown. There are obvious exceptions such as Northern white cedar or yellow cedar (their names say it all), but on the whole, cedar is usually of a familiarly predictable color and grain. While all wood has a natural charm and beauty, cedar definitely falls more into the “it’s-what’s-on-the-inside-that-counts” camp than some of the flashier woods such as rosewood.
5. Cedar tends to be somewhat dimensionally stable. I list this last, as it is perhaps not accurate to apply to all species of cedar, but it is a common trait shared by many of the species. With changes in humidity and moisture content, a lot of cedar species have the virtue of not shrinking or swelling much—and when they do, they tend to do so in a uniform fashion (which is generally attested to by their low T/R ratios).
TL;DR (Too long; didn’t read) summary of cedars for North Americans
I’d guess that in 90% of instances for those located in the United States or Canada, the cedar in question can be immediately narrowed down to just one of two species!
- Golden or light brown? It’s probably #1
- Darker reddish brown with an almost violet hue (sometimes with lighter patches randomly mixed in)? It’s probably #2
- Reminiscent of sharpening wooden pencils? #1
- Reminiscent of birdhouses and closet liners? #2
- Ginormous 6×6 rough-sawn posts, 2-by construction lumber, or dog-eared fence pickets? Usually #1
- Full of knots and processed as tongue and groove or thin boards? Usually #2
Tier 1: Cedar according to the stickler.
Trees in the Cedrus genus. This includes only a narrow handful of species, and these are found only in a few spots on the globe—in the Mediterranean and Himalayan regions. Other so-called cedars found in continents such as North and South America, Australia, (as well as very large swaths of Africa, Asia, and Europe), all fail to make the cut as “true cedars.” These non-Cedrus species frequently get second-class treatment in their common names, being called by compound or hyphenated names (e.g., red-cedar or redcedar) to help distinguish them from those in the Cedrus genus that are deemed worthy of the standalone cedar name.
Mini-rant: Are Cedrus species superior to tier-2 species of cedar in any significant way (such as odor, rot resistance, etc.) that would make them more deserving of the cedar title? Absolutely not. In 1757, German botanist Christoph Jacob Trew formally described a genus of conifer trees and he simply used the Latin name Cedrus, which comes from the Greek word kedros—what we know today as cedar. But ironically, in antiquity the name was more commonly used to describe aromatic trees from the Juniperus genus. For example, the first century Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History of cedrus trees and mentioned their berries: but Trew’s Cedrus species do not have berries, and the reference was more than likely referring to species in the already-named Juniperus genus, which do have berries. (And then there is Herodotus’ historical reference to “cedar oil” in the fifth century BC, which was predominantly made from what we would today call species of juniper and cypress.) With thousands of years of momentum, many species of Juniperus and Cupressus have just as much of a historical right to be called “true cedars” as those found in today’s Cedrus genus.
As mentioned previously, there are between two and four Cedrus species depending on who you talk to. All of them bear common names based upon their geographic occurrence. The two primary, more or less undisputed species are:
- Cedrus libani (Cedar of Lebanon)
- Cedrus deodara (Himalayan cedar)
Additionally, there are two other species that are sometimes treated as subspecies under C. libani by some sources, which are:
- Cedrus atlantica (Atlas cedar)
- Cedrus brevifolia (Cyprian cedar)
Identifying Cedrus species
As the title of the article suggests, scent is very often crucial in identifying cedar species. The only problem is, scent can be very subjective and very difficult to describe in mere words. Sometimes it helps to have known samples as a point of reference.
Odor: All Cedrus species share a sweet, rather citrus-like scent that lingers well after the wood has been cut or machined.
Appearance: The color tends to be a light reddish brown, usually with moderate to widely spaced growth rings. Finished wood can age to an orangish brown.
Availability: Cedar of Lebanon and its kin aren’t really commercially available in any appreciable scale anymore. However, sometimes landscape or ornamental trees (particularly those that have been storm-damaged) can provide very limited supplies of wood.
Lookalikes: Since Cedrus species tend to be rather light colored, it could conceivably be confused with other tier-2 species of lighter-colored Cupressaceae cedars—including many Cupressus species, as well as Northern White Cedar (Thuya occidentalis), and a number of lighter-colored cedars in the Chamaecyparis genus. Besides using scent to distinguish among the species, look at the endgrain and check for zonate parenchyma—Cedrus is not known for having much observable axial parenchyma.