Trees are among the most wondrous achievements of nature, creating not just clean air but also bountiful benefits. For example, people have cultivated persimmon trees for fruits and harvested oak trees for lumber for centuries. However, there are trees that have achieved mythical status because of their properties. Among these are cedar trees. These softwood trees have been grown in the Mediterranean region for ages and they have featured heavily in myths, religions and history before they were brought over to the New World.
In recent years, environmental efforts such as commitments to energy efficiency and natural conservation have aimed to protect cedar trees from further exploitation. Today, learn more about the characteristics, history and uses of these magnificent coniferous trees. Understanding the background of these fragrant and mighty plants may give you a newfound appreciation for them and spur you to take better care of the trees that grown in your own community.
What are Cedar Trees?
Cedar trees belong to a species of coniferous trees, meaning they’re related to pine trees and aspen trees. In terms of construction and furniture making, they’re also categorized as softwood. This means they’re usually easier to work with than material from hardwood trees, like maple or walnut. This is because cedar trees do not have the same vessels in them that transport water. They also grow more quickly than hardwoods, making them more environmentally sustainable.
The other defining characteristics of cedar include the following:
Young cedar trees start as cones, just like most coniferous trees, and grow into vaguely conical shape in their earlier years. However, as the tree ages, it begins to lose this cone-shape. True cedars like the ones that grow in the mountains of Lebanon can grow to truly enormous proportions, reaching heights of over 126 feet in some cases. The taller they get, the flatter their crown becomes as the branches lengthen horizontally, eventually creating a signature tiered shape.
The bark of cedar trees has a dark gray color, which sometimes look like flat scales. Meanwhile, their needles have a blue sheen to them, usually mixed with deep green and hints of silver. The wood inside the tree is usually a deep red color, often compared to cherrywood or rosewood but with a distinct rusty or cinnamon-like color.
One of the most recognizable characteristics of both true cedars and New World cedars is their scent. The scent of cedarwood is often described as spicy and aromatic. This signature aroma comes from the resin, which also imbues the wood with its deep red, almost cinnamon-like, hue. Cedarwood resin has been used in aromatherapy as well as perfume making for years.
Part of the reason ancient cultures almost venerated and prized the wood of cedar trees is because its chemical components give it superior resistances. According to experts such as the Environmental Protection Agency, cedar oil is labeled a pesticide with minimum risk. This means insects such as mites and moths won’t be able to survive prolonged exposure to it.
What are the Types of Cedar Trees?
Just like any tree, there’s more than just one type of cedar belonging to the entire species. Most taxonomists and botanists separate types of cedars based on both their taxonomic or physical characteristics and their place of origin.
The two broad types of cedar trees into those that naturally occur in North America and the so-called true cedars from the Old World.
North American Cedars
Cedars are often thought of as tropical trees because they’re associated with dry countries like Lebanon, but as coniferous trees, they can actually survive colder climates. North American cedars don’t have the same taxonomic properties as true cedars but are included in them nonetheless. These cedars include Alaskan yellow cedar, which grows in Canada and Alaska, Port Orford cedar, which grows in areas of California and Oregon, as well as incense cedar, often used to make pencils and furniture.
Old World Cedars
There are four species of true or Old-World cedars. These mighty trees are now mostly protected because centuries of lumber harvesting have drastically reduced their populations. The two most recognizable types of true cedars. Deodar cedar grows in the western Himalayas, high up on the slopes, ensuring that these aren’t tropical tress at all. Their stands usually occur at elevations between 6,000 and 9,000 feet. The cedars of Lebanon are the most famous of cedar trees. These grow in the mountains of their namesake country, and they are among the most historic coniferous trees in the world.
What is the History of Cedar Trees?
When people talk about the role of cedar trees in history, they’re mostly talking about the fabled cedars of Lebanon. These trees are also known by their scientific name, Cedrus libani, and they have a history that stretches back thousands upon thousands of years. These softwood trees have touched history since the youngest civilizations began in the Middle East.
Trees of the Gods
One of the earliest mentions of cedar trees in history can be found in the ancient Mesopotamian epic poem known as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The poem dates back to approximately 2100 BCE and features the story of the mythical king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, on his quest for immortality. In the poem, Gilgamesh, along with his companion Enkidu, travels to a cedar forest to prove that he can surmount mortality. He overcomes and defeats the divine guardian of the forest and cuts the coniferous trees of the grove to prove his royalty and power.
The ancient Sumerians weren’t the only civilizations to recognize the unique properties of their towering trees. The astringent and insect repellent properties of cedar trees were also used by the pharaonic civilizations of Egypt. Cedar oil was one of the important ingredients for mummification. Priests would supposedly inject the body with this aromatic oil to imbue with the smell as well as to ward away corruption. Sarcophaguses of the later periods of Egyptian history were also carved from the fragrant wood.
Cedar has also been mentioned prominently in the Bible and the Talmud. According to the book of Leviticus, Moses recommended using the bark of cedar trees to cure skin diseases. David, the ancient king of Israel, had a house built of cedarwood. The great Temple of Jerusalem, built by David’s successor King Solomon, was said to have incorporated timber from the aromatic softwoods into its construction.
Because of how intricately linked Cedrus libani is to the history and mythology of the reason, the country of Lebanon proudly features the tree on their flag and coat of arms. The country has sponsored various conservation efforts for the trees throughout the country. Forests of the fabled cedar trees are protected by both the government and their high elevations.
How are Cedar Trees Used?
Although true cedars like the cedar of Lebanon and those that grow in the Himalayan heights are no longer legal or extremely difficult to procure, there are various uses for their cousins from the New World. Cedarwood is extremely versatile and the fragrant coniferous trees around the home have plenty of uses.
Cedarwood can be used to make construction frames and interior support structures for walls. Its insect repellent properties can make sure it lasts longer than other types of wood. However, you can also use cedarwood for shingles, both for your roof or the exterior walls of your home. Cedar trees also display antifungal properties, meaning no matter how wet the shingles get, they won’t me as susceptible to rot. The softwood tree also yields light wood, meaning your cedar shingles won’t be as heavy on your structures as other materials.
The antifungal and insect repellant properties of cedarwood also make it an ideal construction material for furniture. Carpenters routinely use cedarwood to make wardrobes and cabinets because its aromatic resin can add a subtle perfume to cloths and keep away damaging insect life like moths. Cedarwood cabinets also have a lovely reddish hue, thanks to the color of the sap.
Cedar trees also produce fragrant essential oils from their needles, bark and berries. Perfumers and homeopathic experts extract this essential oil through various means such as cold pressing and steam distillation. The chemicals found in cedarwood are responsible for its insecticidal and antifungal properties. Medical experts have suggested that cedarwood oil can help with wound healing, sleep therapy as well as work as a treatment for hair loss.
Cedar trees are some of the largest and most astounding trees in the plant kingdom. Learning more about them can help you appreciate why they need to be protected. Their magnificence canopies can spread for millennia more if people and societies can learn to appreciate them as more than just building materials but as legends in their own right.