As is often the case with common names for trees and other living things, the names do not reflect their scientific classification. The common names often reflect other concerns. Life isn't all just science and academic research. This discontinuity between common names and scientific names is no better illustrated than in the naming of cedars of North America. You have, no doubt, heard of the cedars of Lebanon and their use in the building of Solomon’s Temple. We are at least familiar with the name, if not the tree. The first Europeans to arrive in North America were likely familiar with the tree, or more to the point, the wood. Cedar wood is known for its fragrance and resistance to rot. Early settlers to the East Coast found trees there that had these same characteristics. So it is perfectly natural that they would call them “cedars.” And from the standpoint of classifying wood uses, it is a perfectly reasonable name.
|Cedar of Lebanon|
Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) -- native to the mountains of Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Atlas Cedar, native to the Atlas Mountains in northern Africa is usually considered a subspecies (Cedrus libani subsp. atlantica). The needles of this species are about 1-inch long.All the true cedars have bundles of needles that grow on short stems, like larch needles. The cones of the cedars look and act like fir cones. They sit upright on the branch and disintegrate as they disperse their winged seeds. Deodar Cedar is a common urban conifer in the Northwest. Cultivars of the cedars are also popular, mostly dwarf-sized varieties that have blue needles. In contrast to the true cedars, all of the cedars of North America are in the cypress family (Cupressaceae). So what should we call them? Some have called our cedars “false cedars,” and tried to distinguish them from the “true” cedars with unconventional typographical notation (“western redcedar” and “incense-cedar.”) However, we must recognize two things: 1) Common names arise from common usage and do not reflect scientific classifications. This a major reason why we have scientific names. 2) You cannot just decide to change common usage. Consider this riddle: If you call a horse’s tail a leg, how many legs does a horse have? Answer: Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg. When listing the common name for a tree, it’s best to just report the common usage.
How to identify native cedars of the NorthwestIn northwest Oregon and western Washington below 2000 feet elevation, any cedar you find is a western red cedar. In the Cascades, it gets more complicated. You will also find Alaska cedar there, and south of Mt. Hood, incense cedar. The other native cedar is Port Orford cedar, which grows in southwest Oregon, especially near its namesake.
Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) has flat, wide scale-like leaves, often with a white butterfly-shaped pattern on the lower surface. The 1/2-inch cones sit on top of the branch and look like tiny rose buds. The red-brown bark is stringy.
Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) has longer tapered leaves. It has bark that looks similar to western red cedar but is deeply furrowed on large trees. The best way to identify incense cedar is by its unique cones. They are shaped like a duck's bill, and when they mature, they open, showing the open bill with its tongue sticking out.
Alaska cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) has small, round cones and scruffy looking gray bark. When crushed, the foliage has a distinctive, unpleasant odor. Alaska cedar is also called yellow cedar, which describes its yellow wood.
Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) has small round cones like Alaska cedar. The leaves often have a unique, white X pattern on the lower surface.
Did you notice the cedrus embedded in the genus name of incense cedar? Calocedrus means beautiful cedar. Even the scientific name suggests a close relationship to the genus Cedrus. Scientific names can be misleading, too.