This is a blog about the native conifers of the Pacific Northwest. It is a companion to the Northwest Conifers site. The blog will focus on timely and interesting details about our conifers, their connections to the rest of the environment, and our connection to them.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Focus on Alaska Cedar

Years ago, I was working for a home builder in The Dalles, Oregon. At one point, the local lumber yard delivered a load of 2 X 4 Alaska cedar decking. As the load dropped to the ground, we noticed that the wood was a curious yellow color. Closer inspection revealed that the wood had a smooth, waxy surface and a distinctive, unpleasant smell. Some years later, while hiking on the south side of Mt. Rainier, I saw what looked to me like an Alaska cedar. To be sure, I stuck a knife blade into the trunk. Sure enough, when I pulled it out and smelled the blade, it smelled just like the 2 x 4 decking. It’s not often that it’s possible to identify a tree by its odor.

Alaska cedar is an attractive narrow tree, easily recognized by its distinctive drooping branchlets. The leaves are scaled with pointed tips that can be prickly. The small round cones are distinctive for conifers of the Cascades, although they look similar to those of Port Orford cedar, which grows along the south coast of Oregon. The bark is gray, and the stringy strips are often detached, giving it a scruffy look. When looking for Alaska cedar, don’t forget to also use your nose. When crushed, the leaves also have an unpleasant smell.

Alaska cedar grows in the upper elevations of the Cascades and Olympic Mountains. You can also find it throughout Southeast Alaska, where it grows down to sea level. In colder regions, it grows where there is deep snow, which protects its shallow roots from freezing. Ironically, the warming climate may cause freeze damage to the roots, as snowpacks become thinner. If you drive to Government Camp on Mt. Hood, you can see some Alaska cedar growing in town. You are likely to see Alaska cedar growing in urban areas, where its attractive, weeping form is desirable for plantings as an ornamental. A number of them are growing at Portland’s Hoyt Arboretum along Fischer Lane.

The wood of Alaska cedar is strong and resists rotting. Sometimes called yellow cedar, the wood is light yellow and turns brighter yellow when wet. The native people of Canada's west coast and Southeast Alaska made canoe paddles, bows, and many other tools and implements from Alaska cedar. Today it is used to make furniture, boats, window frames, shingles, and siding. You can find beautiful carvings of Alaska cedar in gift shops in Southeast Alaska.

Pollen cones

The scientific name of Alaska cedar is Callitropsis nootkatensis, formerly Chamaecyparis nootkatensis. The classification of this conifer has been the subject of much recent discussion and indecision among botanists. Other proposed genus names include Xanthocyparis, Cupressus and Hesperocyparis. The species name, nootkatensis, is derived from the name of the Nootka people of Vancouver Island. Oregon Flora shows Callitropsis nootkatensis as the name. Other common names include yellow cedar, Nootka cypress, yellow cypress, and Alaska cypress.

Note: Like the other cedars of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska cedar is not a true cedar. That is, its genus is not Cedrus, the genus of the true cedars from the Middle East and Himalayas. Some writers indicate this by writing the name as "Alaska-cedar."

More Info

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Focus on Incense Cedar

My first encounter with incense cedar wasn’t a sighting. It was a smelling… of trees in Yosemite Valley below Yosemite Falls. Walking through the trees there, I noticed the pleasant aroma and asked a ranger what it was. He told me I was smelling incense cedar. With such an overpowering aromatic presence, this tree is well-named. These aromatic qualities have contributed to its wide use in cedar chests and closets. Its resistance to decay makes it a good choice for siding and other outdoor uses.

You may not realize it, but you have most certainly used small amounts of incense cedar. It has been the preferred wood for making pencils for many years. However, planting incense cedar as an ornamental is surely more noble than its use in pencils. Its slow growth and beauty make it a preferred landscaping tree. Incense cedar displays bright pollen cones in the fall. You often see them on branchlets in Christmas wreaths.

Leaves and pollen cones
Incense cedar has small, flat scale-like leaves forming overlapping, long, wedge-shaped joints. The leaves are often described as forming the shape of a wine glass, but beer drinkers would swear that they are shaped like a beer glass. This pattern, often outlined in white, is distinct to incense cedar. The foliage forms flat sprays that often have a vertical orientation, unlike western red cedar, which has drooping sprays with a horizontal orientation.

The reddish-brown bark looks similar to western red cedar, but it is deeply furrowed on large trees. The best way to identify incense cedar is by its unique cones if any are present. The differences that distinguish incense cedar leaves and bark from other cedars may be subtle, but incense cedar cones are unmistakably unique. They are shaped like a duck's bill, and when they mature, they open, looking like an open bill with its tongue sticking out.

Incense cedar is primarily a California tree, growing in the mountains throughout the length of the state. But some grow in the Oregon Cascades north to the south slopes of Mt. Hood. None are native to the Washington Cascades, at least, not yet. As the climate warms, they may be headed north. While our other cedars in the Pacific Northwest (western red cedar, Alaska cedar, and Port Orford cedar) favor wet areas, incense cedar tolerates dry conditions. It is moderately shade tolerant, but less so than our other native cedars. You can find incense cedar growing in the southern parts of the Mt. Hood National Forest. As you travel south in the Cascades, they become more common, also growing in the coastal mountains of southwest Oregon. If you want to see incense cedar in the Portland area, several were planted at Hoyt Arboretum along the connector trail between Bray Lane and the Redwood Trail. More are growing along the Marquam Trail, west of the Vietnam Memorial.

The scientific name of incense cedar is Calocedrus decurrens. Calocedrus means "beautiful cedar." Decurrens describes how the leaves extend down the stem. The English form of the word is "decurrent."

Note that the cedars native to North America are not true cedars. That is, they do not belong to the genus Cedrus, the genus of the cedars from the Middle East and Himalayas. Common names often can be misleading. However, did you notice that cedrus is embedded in the genus name of incense cedar? Even the scientific name suggests a close relationship to the genus Cedrus. Scientific names can be misleading, too.
See also
New World Cedars
Western Red Cedar