Tree Talk

Madison's true Cedars

Madison's true Cedars

Madison's true Cedars

Among the most magnificent trees on the globe, the true Cedars (genus Cedrus) have figured into history as few other plants have. Three of the species in this rather small family make a profound statement in the gardens of Madison Park and the greater Northwest: The Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica); Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara)  and Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani). To the horticultural layman’s eye, these plants are so similar that it’s hard to know exactly at what you are looking. But never the matter. Their great stature with nearly horizontal branches that swoop out and down a bit are filled with tufts of short needles giving the trees a feathery quality, especially when a stiff wind makes their limbs sway as if the plant is responding to some celestial music too lofty and spiritual for human ears. And when reproduction is in season, many of the branches are artfully laden with cones, the size and shape of eggs, standing upright atop the foliage. It is an amazing sight. 

The Atlas Cedar is likely the most widely grown in the Pacific Northwest. It comes from North Africa where it figures into the culture and mythology of Morocco and its neighbors. It grows slowly, albeit a worthy long-term investment, to a height of 60 feet or more with a spread of 30 feet. Among its handful of cultivated varieties, ‘Glauca’ is by far the most popular for its steel-blue foliage and a somewhat open and angular form that, backed by a vivid sunset, will magically carry you off to carpeted tents, hookahs and slow-moving camels. A weeping form of this tree is also readily available in nurseries. You can train it to snake along the eave of a house or gazebo, its long branches dripping down to the ground like a curtain of falling water.

Deodar Cedar is native to the Himalayas where its Sanskrit name, Devadaru, refers to its godliness.

A timber tree in its native habitat, it can grow to 250 feet with a 50-foot width at a faster clip than many other conifers. It has been used in the construction of temples, houses and bridges. Faster growing than its cousins, this plant requires an even more generous space and is really not suitable for most city gardens unless you can give it a spot on the Northeast corner of a lot where it will not totally obstruct incoming sunlight. Anyone who has visited estate gardens in Great Britain has seen this tree sited to pull the eye off and into the horizon where its dense, abundant, and most often emerald-colored foliage shimmers in bright light or mist. Selected varieties of this tree can be found with yellowish-green or silvery foliage and while prized as garden oddities, none seems to be as beautiful as the straightforward species.

Least known and the slowest growing of the three is the Cedar of Lebanon. It will eventually reach 80 feet (15 feet in an equal number of years). Its native range is from Lebanon up into Turkey, figuring into the architecture and literature of biblical times. Ultimately the tree will spread to be as wide as it is tall, a source of shade and greenery in a land where both are sparse and much sought after. This is the hardest of the three to find in nurseries, likely because seedlings take so long to reach marketable size.

Early British plant hunters brought all of these garden-worthy subjects into cultivation, now centuries ago.

All are relatively undemanding to grow. And given our mild, moist, Northwest climate they are likely (as they do in the British Isles) to exceed the size they reach in their native habitat. The roots of these trees go deep. They flourish in our rich acid soil, but must have good drainage. Selective pruning when they are young will ensure an open and handsome form in their adulthood. To enjoy the cones indoors, cut them with a bit of branch when they are green. Be careful, they are quite sticky. But stretched out on a dinner table or in a long, low bowl, the sprigs, with cones jutting up, are enormously decorative. The cones of the bluish Atlas Cedars appear to be rich purple overlaid with lightly tarnished silver.

So, given ample garden space and time to watch them grow, these stately true cedars are well worth cultivating, giving your garden beautiful visual references to the far away and long ago.