Cedar trees are a beautiful, important, but incredibly diverse and, therefore, confusing group of trees.
True cedars belong to the Cedrus genus. They are part of the Pinaceae family in the Pinales order of gymnosperms that evolved over 155 million years ago.
Gymnosperm means ‘naked seed’ because they have no fruits to encase their seeds.
There are, however, only three distinct species of true cedars in the world.
However, there are many false cedars belonging to other genera, but mostly other families and orders of conifers and even the angiosperm phylum of flowering plants.
This makes the task of identifying the different types of cedars difficult in some ways but easier in others since their identifying features vary more widely with the family and order they belong to.
Cedars are found worldwide, from the northern arctic to temperate South America, but they are particularly abundant in the northern hemisphere.
The Different Families That Cedar Trees Belong To
The Pinaceae family is where the Cedrus or true cedars belong, of which three distinct species are found naturally around the Mediterranean east through parts of Asia.
The Pinaceae also contains the Siberian Cedar Pinus siberica, which is actually a pine tree, but so commonly called a cedar it is included here. The name came from an incorrect translation of the common name for the tree in Russia.
Spanish Cedar or Cedrela odorata is not even a conifer tree but part of the Meliaceae family of the Sapindales order in the phylum of flowering plants. The name comes from its pinkish wood with a faint odor of cedar.
The other false cedars are the ones with which North Americans are more familiar. These ones are all part of the Cupressaceae or cypress family in the Cupressales order of gymnosperms that evolved over 200 million years ago.
These include Calocedrus, with four species, which are commonly called incense cedars. One is native to North America and the other three to Asia, including one rare endemic from the limestone mountains of Vietnam that was only discovered in 2004.
Thuja has five species. Two of these native to North America are called cedars. The other three are from Asia and are called the Korean Thuja, Japanese Thuja, and Sichuan Thuja from China which is nearly extinct in the wild.
Cryptomeria is a monotypic genus (has only one species) of Cupressaceae, and it is called Japanese Cedar, a former endemic species of Japan.
Then we have two of the five species of the false cypress genus, Chamaecyparis, which are frequently referred to as cedar. The Port Orford Cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) is also commonly called the Lawson Cypress and was discussed in my cypress article. The other is the White Atlantic Cedar, Chamaecyparis thyoides, and it is discussed below.
The Nootka Cypress, often called Yellow Cedar or the Alaskan Yellow Cedar, is actually a cypress of the Cupressus or true cypress genus and was also discussed in my article on cypress trees.
Finally, some Juniperus or juniper species go by the common name of cedar as well, and we will discuss some of them below.
Sometimes the redwoods and sequoia are also called cedar trees. With their massive size, their bark, and their wood, they do resemble the false cedars more than they do most cypress trees. These include Sequoia and Sequoiadendron, each with one species, and Metasequoia, with two species. But we are leaving those beautiful giants out of this article since they are only occasionally called cedars.
Cedar Tree Identification (With Photos)
Identifying True Cedars vs False Cedars
True cedars (Cedrus spp) have needle-like leaves arranged in unique densely spiraled clusters that are sometimes called apparent or false fascicles because they really do resemble the fascicles or bundles of leaves seen in pine trees more than they do most other cedars.
False cedars sometimes have needle-like leaves similar to true cedars, like the Siberian Cedar, but its leaves are in fascicles (see example above).
The Juniperus and Libocedrus false cedars also both have needle-like leaves when they are young. Juniper needle-like leaves are more specifically described as awl-shaped because the shape is more like an awl than a needle. But these false cedars all typically develop scale-like leaves as they mature.
However, most false cedars always have scale-like leaves that resemble cypress more than they do true cedar.
Finally, the Spanish Cedar is the odd one in the bunch, with pinnately compound leaves that are described by the number and shape of leaflets in each leaf.
Identifying Cedar Trees by Their Leaves
All coniferous cedars are evergreen trees with leaves that remain all year. The Spanish Cedar of the Meliaceae family of flowering plants is a deciduous tree.
Cedars have one of three kinds of leaves. They usually have either needle-like leaves like those of pine or fir trees or they have scale-like leaves like those of cypress trees. The Spanish Cedar is the odd one in the group with pinnately compound leaves.
Identifying Cedar Trees With Needle-Like Leaves
Cedars with needle-like leaves can be described by their leaf length, thickness, attachment, and arrangement on the twig.
Needle-like leaves are usually attached singly, but in Pinus, are attached in bundles known as fascicles (see above). They can be arranged in dense clusters like those of true cedars (see above), or they may be arranged in opposite pairs at right angles to each other (decussate), spirally on twigs and radially spreading or forward pointing, or in more or less horizontal rows on either side of the twig, similar to fir trees.
A final feature of leaf attachment that applies to some of the false cedars is those with decurrent bases. This is when the base of the leaf extends down onto the leaf stalk or twig.
The shape of the leaf tips, whether they are acute (angled), sharp-pointed, obtuse (wide-angled), or blunt (no angle), can also help describe the leaves and identify the cedar trees to the species level. This same terminology also applies to the tip or apex of a scale-like leaf.
Identifying Cedar Trees With Scale-Like Leaves
Scale-like leaves are slightly more complicated, but they get much easier if you learn some basic morphology.
Scale-like cedar leaves are usually four-ranked, with four small leaves per layer. Two facial leaves and two lateral leaves are arranged in opposite pairs at right angles to the other pair (decussate).
Scale-like leaves are usually imbricate, meaning they overlap each other so that some of the leaves are outside the others and others are under on one or both of their sides. Sometimes how much they overlap can help to identify cedar trees. These overlapping leaves are then arranged in flattened or sometimes rounded shoots or sprays.
Additional features of scale-like leaves that can help identify cedar trees are things like whether the facial or lateral leaves are all roughly the same size or if one set is longer or larger than the other, one set is folded, if some have resin glands, and also the shape of the leaf tip (see above).
Scale-like leaves can be tricky to examine at times. They can sometimes vary even on the same tree or the same twig and often appear quite similar to other species and genera. So, to identify cedar trees with scale-like leaves, you typically need to use more than one identification tool, including leaf morphology, stomata, resin glands, bark, tree habit, and cones.
Identifying Cedar Trees by Stomata
Stomata are small pores or openings in leaf surfaces that allow for gas exchange with the atmosphere, which is a critical part of photosynthesis. These pores are often coated with wax, and in many conifer trees, these produce visible patterns, lines, or thick bands of multiple thin lines that can be used to help identify them.
Some cedar trees have linear stomatal lines or bands of multiple lines on one or more sides of their leaves.
Some cedar trees have stomatal bands that form characteristic shapes. Western Red Cedar has stomata on the lower side of the leaves in the shape of little butterflies.
Many cedar trees have low-density stomatal pores on their leaves that do not form thick bands or lines. Instead, they produce diffuse patterns with individual dots of stomata seen.
Others, particularly those from warmer and drier climates, have stomata that cannot be seen with the naked eye. These ones are tiny and very low-density, likely an adaptation to prevent water loss.
Identifying Cedar Trees by Seed Cones
Cedar trees are mostly monoecious, with separate male and female cones found on the same tree. A few are dioecious trees with separate male and female trees. They are never bisexual, with male and female reproductive parts found in the same cone.
Seed cones may be solitary or in groups and may be terminal (located at twig twips) or axillary (found in leaf axils where the leaf meets the twig)
They can be egg-shaped, ellipsoid, columnar, cylindrical, or rounded. They are typically greenish when young and usually become woody as they mature, with some exceptions.
Seed cones are an excellent way to distinguish the different types of true and false cedars from each other, thanks to their high degree of variability.
True cedars of the Cedrus genus have erect, relatively large seed cones that are 2 – 4 ¾” long, usually roughly egg-shaped to cylindrical, with numerous thin, somewhat leathery seed scales that are densely packed and spread open at maturity. Their cones resemble spruce cones more than they do any other cedar.
Siberian Cedar is distinguished by having relatively large, 2 – 4 ¾” long, true pine cones that are roughly egg-shaped, with numerous woody scales that remain mostly closed even at maturity.
Japanese Cedar seed cones are unusually rounded for a cedar tree and are rosettelike, resembling opening buds. They are also fairly small, typically 1” or less, and have 20 – 30 seed scales.
The cones of false cedars of the Juniperus genus are also unique among cedars and make them very easy to identify at a quick glance. Juniper false cedars have seed cones that are fleshy and resinous, various shades of blue, and look just like berries. However, botanically speaking, they are not berries but seed cones with merged fleshy scales.
False cedars of the Thuja, Calocedrus, Libocedrus, and Austrocedrus genera all have small woody cones. They’re typically ½” long or less and are ellipsoid to egg-shaped, with 2 – 4 pairs of scales.
They can be differentiated by the small but sharp protruding points (umbos) seen in Thuja and the relatively long and sharp curved protruding umbos of Libocedrus. On the other hand, Calocedrus and Austrocedrus have relatively smooth seed scales that are often strongly reflexed or bent outwards and backward from the center.
Some Calocedrus have sterile seed scales that are smaller than the others, which can differentiate the Asian Calocedrus species from the California Incense Cedar, whose scales are all more or less equal in size.
However, Taiwan and Chinese Incense Cedars share this unequal seed scale size with Chilean Cedar. These ones can further be differentiated by examining the scales more closely.
Chinese Incense Cedar has three pairs of scales, with their base pair being small and infertile and their top pair being joined together, and they have stalks. Taiwan Incense Cedar usually has four or sometimes six scales, their inner pair is the sterile pair, and they are on longer stalks than the Chinese Incense Cedar. The Chilean Cedar has only four scales, is very short-stalked, and the outer scales are typically half or less than half the length of the inner scales.
Finally, Spanish Cedar is distinguished by having true fruits called capsules that appear shortly after flowering completes. This is unusual among cedars since this false cedar is part of the flowering dicots and not even a conifer. However, their capsule is woody and superficially can resemble the Calocedrus cones but is much larger. You can see a photo of their fruits in their description below.
Identifying Cedar Trees by Seed Scales & Umbos
The number, size, and shape of seed scales in the cones can be very useful in helping identify different types of cedar trees. Many false cedars have only 2 – 4 scales, Japanese Cedar has 20 – 30, and true cedars have many thin leathery scales.
Some seed cone scales have characteristic shapes to their umbos. An umbo is simply an additional piece of tissue or protuberance on or near the end of the scales. They may be flat, blunt, rounded, diamond-shaped, curved, or sharp-pointed. Sometimes this can help identify the different types of cedar trees.
Identifying Cedar Trees by Pollen Cones
Pollen cones of coniferous cedar trees are typical among all gymnosperms. They are usually terminal, usually very small (0.08 – 0.5” long), and look like colorful tips on the leaf shoots that are typically yellowish to orangish in color.
Due to their small size and relative uniformity across the families, they are not often used to aid identification. However, occasionally they may be larger than normal, unusually colored, or arranged differently, and this can be used to help identify the different types of cedar trees.
Identifying Cedar Trees by Tree Habit
Cedar trees are small shrubs to exceptionally large trees with massive trunks. Trees and shrubs may have pyramidal, conical, columnar, irregular, flattened, or weeping crowns. Shrubs may also be prostate, growing outwards more than upwards. Sometimes the shape of the crown can be a useful identification technique when used in conjunction with other tools.
Identifying Cedar Trees by Branch Growth
Cedar branches may be whorled, or may grow horizontally, ascend, descend, spread, or some combination of those. This can also be used to aid in the identification of the different types of cedar trees.
Their twigs may be ascending, descending, spreading, pendulous, or arranged in pinnate pairs. Sometimes they are arranged at right angles to each other, and at other times in a plane. These are also useful tools that can aid in identification.
Identifying Cedar Trees by Bark
The bark of cedar trees across the genera tends to be reddish-brown and fibrous when mature, peeling vertically in thin or sometimes wide strips. This, along with similarities in wood appearance and quality, may be why so many disparate species have been called “cedar” worldwide. This type of bark is also shared with junipers, cypress, and other non-related trees. So you must combine this feature with other identification tools when identifying a tree as a cedar.
In other cedar trees, the bark can be variously colored, smooth, scaly, shallowly to deeply grooved, or grooved and checked into rectangular or square plates. These variations can sometimes help determine the different types of cedar trees.
Now, let’s put these new skills to use and identify some different species of cedar trees!
17 Different Types of Cedar Trees & Their Identifying Features
1. Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara)
Deodar Cedar is a tall tree with a broad trunk and horizontally spreading to slightly pendulous branches.
The bark is dark gray, cracking into irregular scales.
Long twigs are typically pendulous, pale grayish yellow, and densely hairy with white powder, becoming grayish when mature.
Winter bud scales curve outward at their base.
Leaves are needle-like, spreading radially on long twigs and tightly clustered in groups of 15 – 20 on short twigs. They are pale green, maturing to dark green, hard, slender, 1 – 2” long, three-sided, with long-pointed tips, and they have stomatal lines on all surfaces.
Seed cones are solitary, erect, terminal, short-stalked, pale green with some white powder, becoming reddish-brown when ripe, roughly egg-shaped, 2 ¾ – 4 ¾” long, and somewhat narrower than they are long.
Although believed to have little invasive potential, it has been introduced in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
Other Common Names: Himalayan Cedar, Deodar
Identifying Features: Deodar Cedar is a tall tree with a broad trunk and horizontally spreading to slightly pendulous branches, pale to dark green three-sided needle-like 1 – 2” long leaves with long-pointed tips, stomatal lines on all surfaces, and are clustered in groups of 15 – 25. Erect, solitary, terminal, short-stalked seed cones are reddish-brown, roughly egg-shaped, and 2 ¾ – 4 ¾” long. It is mostly confused with Atlas Cedar which has horizontal branches that ascend at the tips, roughly four-sided 0.6 – 1.4” long needle-like leaves in clusters of 19 – 28, more diffuse stomata, and pale brown somewhat egg-shaped to columnar 2.75” seed cones.
Native Area: Himalayan Mountains from 3500 – 12000 ft
USDA Growing Zones: 7 (6 with protection) – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 70 ft tall, 20 – 40 ft spread
2. Lebanese Cedar (Cedrus libani)
Lebanese Cedars are tall trees with conical crowns spreading horizontally, massive, often forked, trunks to 8 ft 2” wide, and blackish-brown bark with vertical grooves.
Twigs have long, slender leading shoots, but the rest are short, and they are pale brown with brown hairs, maturing to gray with shallow grooves.
Needle-like light to dark green, sometimes glaucous, leaves are spirally arranged on long shoots and densely crowded in clusters of 20 – 35 on short shoots. They’re 0.78 – 1” long, slender (to 1.5 mm), four-sided, acute or sharp-pointed, with some stomata on all surfaces.
Seed cones are terminal, erect, stalk-less, light green maturing to woody and gray-brown in two years, egg-shaped to cylindrical, with an obtuse to depressed tip, 2 – 4 ¾” long, and are roughly half as wide as long.
Its native population is Vulnerable and decreasing.
It is considered to have little invasive potential.
Other Common Names: Cedar of Lebanon, Lebanon Cedar
Identifying Features: Lebanese Cedar is a tall tree with a conical crown, massive trunk with blackish-brown grooved bark, light to dark green needle-like leaves in clusters of 20 – 35 that are up to 1” long, slender, four-sided, acute or sharp-pointed, with some stomata on all surfaces. Its seed cones are woody gray-brown, stalk-less, egg-shaped to cylindrical, with an obtuse to depressed tip, 2 – 4 ¾” long, and roughly half as wide as long. It looks very much like Atlas Cedar and is frequently misidentified as such, but they can be differentiated by Atlas Cedar having smaller pollen cones to 1.6” long instead of 2” long and smaller seed cones to 3.15” long.
Native Area: Mountains of Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey
USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 100 ft (to 130 ft) tall, 30 – 80 ft spread
3. Cyprus Cedar (Cedrus libani var brevifolia)
Frequently called Cedrus brevifolia, but according to plant authorities, Cyprian Cedar is not a distinct species but a botanical variety of Lebanese Cedar and appears extremely similar to it.
They’re medium-sized trees with a single columnar trunk and pyramidal crown that becomes flattened and umbrella-shaped with age.
Needle-like green and variably glaucous leaves are less than ⅔” long and are arranged in densely crowded clusters of 20 – 35. They are four-sided, with an acute or sharp-pointed tip and some stomata on all surfaces.
Seed cones are terminal, erect, stalk-less, egg-shaped, oblong, or cylindrical, with an obtuse or indented tip, 3.15 – 4.75” long and about half as wide, light green ripening to woody gray-brown.
Its population is Vulnerable but stable in the wild.
It is not listed in any invasive species databases or as introduced in the USDA Plants Database.
Other Common Names: Cypress Cedar, Cyprian Cedar, Brevifolia Cedar
Identifying Features: Cyprus Cedar looks very much like its parent species, the Lebanese Cedar, and it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish the two. The main differences are that it is shorter, has an unforked trunk and crown that matures to umbrella-like, shorter glaucous leaves (less than ⅔” long), and its seed cones are more variable in shape.
Native Area: Narrow endemic found in 500 mountainous hectares of Paphos, Troodos, and Tripylos in western Cyprus
USDA Growing Zones: 6 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 80 ft tall, 30 – 50 ft spread
4. Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica)
Atlas Cedar is the most common true cedar used in gardens and landscapes worldwide.
They are tall trees with a pyramidal crown and horizontal branches that ascend at the tips. Twigs are opposite or alternate, usually not pendulous, pale yellow-brown, hairy when young, and maturing to hairless and dark gray.
Needle-like leaves are spirally arranged on long twigs and on short twigs are clustered in fascicle-like groups of 19-28. They are dark green, linear, more or less four-sided, slender, 0.6 – 1.4” long, with 2 – 5 stomatal lines on both surfaces, and they have a pointed tip.
Seed cones are purple-tinged, maturing to pale brown and woody, somewhat egg-shaped to columnar, 2.75” long, and 1.6” wide.
In its native habitat, it is Endangered, and its population is decreasing.
It has low invasive potential and is not listed as introduced in the USDA Plants Database.
Other Common Names: Blue Atlas Cedar
Identifying Features: Atlas Cedar has a pyramidal crown and horizontal branches that ascend at the tips, twigs that are opposite or alternate, but usually not pendulous, dark green roughly four-sided 0.6 – 1.4” long needle-like leaves arranged in clusters of 19 – 28 with stomatal lines on all surfaces, and pale brown somewhat egg-shaped to columnar seed cones that are 2.75” long and 1.6” wide. It is mostly confused with Deodar Cedar which has slightly pendulous branches, three-sided 1 – 2” long leaves with long-pointed tips clustered in groups of 15 – 25, and short-stalked reddish-brown seed cones up to 4 ¾” long.
Native Area: Northern Africa in the Rif and Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Tell Atlas in Algeria
USDA Growing Zones: 6 (5 with protection) – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 60 ft (to 100 ft) tall, 25 – 40 ft spread
5. Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica)
Japanese Cedar is a tall tree with a conical crown, straight, slender trunk, and reddish-brown to dark-gray fibrous bark.
Branches are more or less whorled and horizontally spreading or slightly pendulous. Green twigs are mostly pendulous.
Needle-like leaves are pale green, rigid, 0.28 – 0.55” long, slender, spirally arranged, five-ranked, pointing forwards, four-sided, with a decurrent base (extends onto twig), pointy tip, and stomatal bands on all surfaces.
Plum red pollen cones maturing to yellow are usually crowded into a terminal, sessile cluster of 6 – 35 near the tip of second-year twigs.
Seed cones are rounded and rosette-like, terminal, nodding, and stalk-less, in groups of 1 – 6. They’re 1” in diameter with 20 – 30 cone scales with diamond-shaped umbos and 2 – 5 irregular brown seeds per scale.
Its population is Near Threatened but currently stable.
It’s introduced in Mississippi and North Carolina but not on invasive species databases.
Other Common Names: Sugi, Japanese Redwood, Japanese Red Cedar
Identifying Features: Japanese Cedar is a tall tree with a conical crown, straight, slender trunk, reddish-brown to dark-gray fibrous bark, mostly pendulous green twigs, rigid five-ranked, four-sided needle-like leaves that are spirally arranged and forward-pointing with a decurrent base and pointy tip. They have terminal clusters of plum red to yellow pollen cones and 1” rounded rosette-like seed cones with 20 – 30 cone scales. Occasionally it’s confused with Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, which has a massive trunk and dimorphic leaves that are needle-like in the shade and scale-like in the sun and have stomata on lower surfaces only.
Native Area: Former endemic of Japan but introduced to China over 1000 years ago
USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 8 (9 with afternoon shade)
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 80 ft (to 125 ft) tall, 20 – 30 ft spread
6. Siberian Cedar (Pinus sibirica)
Siberian Cedar is actually a pine tree. Ironically, however, it’s more closely related to true cedars than most ‘cedars’ discussed here.
They’re tall trees with spreading branches, a broadly conical crown, and smooth pale brown bark, becoming gray, deeply grooved, and scaly with age.
Needle-like green leaves are attached in bundles (fascicles) of five, spreading wide or forward in dense tufts at branch tips. They’re four-sided to triangular in cross-section, 2.4 – 4.3” long, relatively thick (to 1.7 mm), with deciduous sheaths and stomatal lines on two upper surfaces.
Pollen cones are short cylindrical, reddish-brown, in clusters at branch tips.
Seed cones are in whorls of 1 – 3, short-stalked, resinous, somewhat egg-shaped, glaucous green to purplish becoming dark brown, closed or only slightly open at maturity, 2 – 4 ¾” long, with an obtuse pale umbo.
Not listed in any invasive species databases nor introduced in North America.
Other Common Names: Siberian Stone Pine, Siberian Pine
Identifying Features: Siberian Cedar is a tall conical pine tree with deeply grooved gray bark and green needle-like leaves that are four-sided to almost triangular in cross-section with stomatal bands on the upper surfaces and are bundled in fascicles of five. They have reddish brown pollen cones in terminal clusters and whorls of 1 – 3 short-stalked roughly egg-shaped seed cones to 4 ¾” long that are dark brown and closed or only slightly open when mature. Its pine leaves, attached in bundles of five, and its true pine cones will differentiate it from all other cedar trees.
Native Area: Siberia south to southern Mongolia
USDA Growing Zones: 1 – 6
Average Size at Maturity: 100 – 130 ft tall, 30 – 40 ft spread
7. Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)
Western Red Cedar is a very tall and massive tree with a conical crown, horizontal or descending branches that ascend at the tips, and a thick, often buttressed (widened at base) trunk that can reach 23 ft in diameter.
The bark is fairly thin, reddish-brown or grayish-brown, and fibrous.
Twigs are pendulous with glossy green four-ranked scale-like leaves 0.04 – 0.24” long, with lateral leaves that are longer than facial leaves, very pointed tips, and white butterfly-shaped stomatal bands on their lower surfaces.
Pollen cones are terminal, reddish, and about 0.1” long.
Seed cones are brown, ellipsoid to somewhat egg-shaped, about ½” long, with 4 – 6 cone scales with a sharp-pointed triangular umbo and 8 – 14 winged reddish-brown seeds per cone.
Typically found naturally in cool, moist forests and valley bottoms.
While not considered invasive in North America, it is in Great Britain.
Other Common Names: Giant Red Cedar, Giant Cedar, Pacific Redcedar, Giant Arborvitae, Western Arborvitae, Cedar, Shinglewood
Identifying Features: Western Red Cedar is a large tree with a massive, often buttressed trunk, reddish-brown to grayish-brown fibrous bark, 0.04 – 0.24” long scale-like leaves with lateral leaves longer than facial leaves, very pointed tips, and white butterfly-shaped stomatal bands on the lower surface. Its ½” long woody seed cones are ellipsoid with 4 – 6 cone scales with sharp-pointed triangular umbos. It is frequently misidentified as Lawson Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), but that one has grooved bark and X-shaped stomata, or with Northern White Cedar which is a smaller tree with conspicuous glands on the lower facial leaves and lateral leaves that are equal to or slightly shorter than its facial leaves.
Native Area: Pacific Northwest from southern Alaska south through all along the coast to northern California, plus the northern Rocky Mountains from British Columbia, Canada, south to Montana, USA
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 80 ft (to 230 ft) tall, 15 – 25 ft spread
8. Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis)
Northern White Cedar is a small to medium-sized tree with a conical crown and widely spreading branches. It is often stunted or prostrate when growing in harsh environments. The trunk is frequently divided into 2 – 3 tops and may reproduce by layering.
The bark is reddish-brown or grayish-brown, thin, and fibrous.
Scale-like leaves are dull yellowish-green, 0.08 – 0.2” long, facial leaves have a conspicuous gland on the lower surface and acute tips, and the lateral leaves are slightly shorter or as long as facial leaves and have a tip that curves inwards.
Pollen cones are terminal, reddish, and about 0.06” long.
Seed cones are brown, woody, ellipsoid, ¼ – ½” long, with four scales with a very small but sharp-pointed umbo.
Slow growing, it prefers moist or rich soil in full sun. Often found naturally in wet soils and swamps.
Other Common Names: Eastern White Cedar, Arborvitae, Swamp Cedar, American Arbor Vitae, Arbor Vitae, Eastern Arbor Vitae
Identifying Features: Northern White Cedar is a small or medium-sized tree with a conical crown and widely spreading branches, a trunk that is often divided into 2 – 3 tops with thin reddish-brown to grayish-brown fibrous bark, yellowish-green 0.08 – 0.2” long scale-like leaves with conspicuous glands on the lower facial leaves, and ellipsoid woody brown ¼ – ½” seed cones with four scales with a tiny sharp-pointed umbo. It is often confused with Eastern Red Cedar which has four-angled twigs and bluish berry-like seed cones, or with Western Red Cedar, whose lateral leaves are longer than its facial leaves that lack the conspicuous glands.
Native Area: Southeastern Canada and bordering northeastern USA south to Illinois east to Massachusettes, plus the Appalachians of Kentucky, Tennessee, east to Maryland
USDA Growing Zones: 3 (2 with protection) – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 25 – 40 ft (to 125 ft) tall, 10 – 15 ft spread
9. Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
The Eastern Red Cedar is actually a juniper tree with the reddish-brown fibrous bark and scale-like leaves of false cedars.
It’s a medium-sized tree with a columnar, rounded, flattened, or conical crown, ascending to pendulous branches, and three or four-angled thin twigs.
They have glaucous green, ¼” long, sharp-pointed awl-shaped juvenile leaves in whorls of three or in opposite pairs.
Mature green leaves are scale-like, four-ranked, diamond-shaped to egg-shaped, to 0.1” long, closely appressed, and have a gland on their lower surface that does not exude resin.
It’s dioecious, with male trees having yellowish pollen cones up to 0.1” long.
Female trees produce bluish-green to blue-black, glaucous, rounded, 0.16 – 0.28”, berry-like, resinous seed cones with 1 – 2 egg-shaped seeds in each cone.
While native to North America, its range in our grasslands is expanding due to fire suppression and becoming problematic for grassland ecology.
Other Common Names: Aromatic Cedar, Red Cedar, Virginian Juniper, Eastern Juniper, Red Juniper, Pencil Cedar, Carolina Cedar, Red Savin, Baton Rouge
Identifying Features: The Eastern Red Cedar is a medium-sized tree with three or four-angled twigs, glaucous green awl-shaped juvenile leaves, scale-like four-ranked tightly appressed mature leaves with a gland on the lower surface that does not exude resin, and bluish-green to blue-black, glaucous, ¼” berry-like, resinous seed cones on female trees. It is often confused with Atlantic White Cedar which has grooved rather than fibrous bark and larger rounded seed cones that are woody when mature and not noticeably resinous, or with Northern White Cedar, which has woody ellipsoid seed cones with four scales.
Native Area: Canada from Ontario east to Nova Scotia and south throughout the entire eastern and central USA from North Dakota south to Texas and every state east of that, plus Colorado
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 40 ft (to 65 ft) tall, 10 – 20 ft spread
Taylor Juniper Juniperus virginiana ‘Taylor‘ has a tall, very straight and narrow columnar habit and leaves that are more dense and soft than its parent strain – Image via Nature Hills. Brodie Eastern Red Cedar Tree Juniperus virginiana ‘Brodie’ has a dense columnar to narrowly conical crown and densely packed feathery dark green leaves – Image via Fast Growing Trees
10. Bermuda Cedar (Juniperus bermudiana)
Bermuda Cedar is actually a juniper that used to cover most of Bermuda but was reduced to less than 1% of its population by scale insects introduced from the USA during WWII.
It is a small to medium-sized tree with an irregular to somewhat pyramidal crown, thin reddish-brown to grayish-brown fibrous bark, and four-sided twigs.
Opposite scale-like leaves overlap by about half their length and are decurrent on young plants but otherwise scale-like. They’re very short (1 mm), with obtuse to acute tips, rounded on the back, and tightly appressed with inconspicuous elongated, sunken glands.
Seed cones are soft, resinous, glaucous dark blue, somewhat rounded to kidney-shaped, up to 0.2” long, with 1 – 2(3) seeds per berry-like cone.
Its population is Critically Endangered but increasing, thanks to some scale insect-resistant trees that are now spreading.
It can become invasive, particularly on tropical islands like Ascension Island.
Other Common Names: Bermuda Redcedar, Bermuda Juniper
Identifying Features: Bermuda Cedar is a small to medium-sized tree with an irregular to somewhat pyramidal crown, reddish-brown to grayish-brown fibrous bark, four-sided twigs, tightly appressed scale-like leaves that overlap about half their length, and resinous berry-like glaucous dark-blue rounded to kidney-shaped seed cones. It can be differentiated from Eastern Red Cedar, whose leaves only overlap by about ¼ of their length and have more conspicuous circular glands and whose seed cones are bluish-green to blue-black and are never kidney-shaped.
Native Area: Endemic to Bermuda
USDA Growing Zones: 9 – 10
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 50 ft tall, 20 – 30 ft spread
11. Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)
Incense Cedar is a medium to tall tree with a very narrow conical to columnar crown and a thick trunk with cinnamon brown, fibrous bark with grooves and ridges.
Twigs are mostly twice or more longer than they are wide and broaden towards their tips.
Leaves are scale-like and four-ranked, 0.1 – 0.55” long including their long-decurrent base, rounded on the lower surface, and have an often abruptly acute tip.
Seed cones are oblong to egg-shaped when closed, with three equal pairs of seed scales. When mature, they are red-brown to golden-brown, the outside scales typically curve outwards and backward, the middle scales spread widely, and the center scales are erect. There are up to four winged, light brown seeds per cone.
It has not naturalized outside its native range in North America and is not listed on global invasive species databases.
Other Common Names: California Incense Cedar, California Post Cedar, California White Cedar, Bastard Cedar, California Calocedar, White Cedar, Red Cedar
Identifying Features: Incense Cedar is a medium to tall tree with a very narrow columnar to conical crow, twigs that broaden towards their tips, four-ranked scale-like 0.1 – 0.55” long leaves with long-decurrent bases, and oblong to egg-shaped seed cones with three equal pairs of seed scales that open wide at maturity with the outside ones strongly reflexed. They can be differentiated from the other incense cedars by their equal-sized seed scales, from Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) whose scale-like leaves are less closely appressed and free for about ½ of their length, or from Western Red Cedar, whose lateral leaves are noticeably longer than the facial leaves.
Native Area: Cascades, Sierras, and Coastal Range mountains from Oregon south to northern Baja California, Mexico, and east to southwestern Nevada
USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 60 ft (to 100 ft), 8 – 12 ft spread
12. Taiwan Incense Cedar (Calocedrus formosana)
Taiwan Incense Cedar is a medium to large-sized tree with an initially pyramidal crown becoming broad and rounded with maturity.
It has a massive trunk (to 9.8 ft wide) with smooth orange-brown to purplish bark that matures to fibrous, grayish, and shallowly grooved.
Scale-like four-ranked leaves are green above with dense patches of white stomata below, 0.06 – 0.3” long, and the successive pairs are closely then distantly spaced. Facial leaves are flat, while lateral leaves are folded at the base. They form on flattened drooping sprays.
Seed cones are glaucous pale purple, about ½” long on 0.2” stalks covered with small scale-like leaves, and have 4(6) scales. The outer pair of scales are larger and contain two winged seeds each, while the inner pair(s) are usually sterile and smaller.
The terminal yellow pollen cones are 0.2” long.
Its population is Endangered and decreasing.
Other Common Names: Tái Wān Cui Bai (Chinese)
Identifying Features: Taiwan Incense Cedar is a medium to large-sized tree with a broad rounded crown, massive trunk with grayish, fibrous, shallowly grooved bark, four-ranked scale-like leaves with dense white stomata on the lower sides, and ½” seed cones with 4(6) seed scales with the outer pair only being fertile and larger. It is very similar to Chinese Incense Cedar but can be most easily differentiated by its shorter seed cone stalks at 0.2” compared to the 0.4 – 0.8” long stalks in Chinese Incense Cedar.
Native Area: Endemic of Taiwan
USDA Growing Zones: 8 – 10
Average Size at Maturity: 60 – 85 ft tall, 20 – 30 ft spread
13. Chinese Incense Cedar (Calocedrus macrolepis)
Chinese Incense Cedar is a medium to large-sized tree with a broadly pyramidal crown becoming broadly rounded when mature with spreading and ascending branches.
The bark is whitish, grayish, or reddish-brown. It is smooth when young and becomes fibrous, grooved, and exfoliating with age.
Scale-like leaves are 0.06 – 0.3” long, with a very sharp-pointed tip, and are green above and glaucous below.
Pollen cones are yellow, egg-shaped or oblong, and 0.16 – 0.3” long.
Seed cones are reddish-brown when ripe, ellipsoid, 0.4 – 0.8” long, with six woody flattened seed scales. The larger inner fertile scales contain two slightly flattened, somewhat egg-shaped seeds per scale. The infertile lower scale pair are small and recurved, while the top pair of scales are joined together.
Its population is Near Threatened, and its stability is unknown.
It is not on any global invasive species lists.
Other Common Names: Yunnan Cypress, Bách Xanh (Vietnamese), Cuī Bǎi (Chinese)
Identifying Features: Chinese Incense Cedar is a medium to large-sized tree with a broadly rounded crown, fibrous and grooved bark, scale-like leaves that are glaucous below and have a long-pointed tip, and reddish-brown ellipsoid seed cones with six seed scales whose outer basal pair are sterile and shorter than the rest and whose innermost pair are joined together. It can be differentiated from Incense Cedar with its small basal pair of seed scales that are shorter than the rest and from Taiwan Incense Cedar with its narrower trunk, up to only 4.9 ft instead of 9.8 ft wide, and longer seed cone stalks at 0.4 – 0.8” instead of 0.2”.
Native Area: Southwest China, northern Vietnam, northern Laos, northern Thailand, northeastern Myanmar.
USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 80 ft tall, 10 to 20 ft spread
14. Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides)
Atlantic White Cedar is part of the false cypress genus but is more often referred to as a false cedar.
It is a medium to tall tree with a conical crown and slender trunk with thick dark reddish-brown bark with irregular grooves and ridges that provides some resistance to wildfires.
Twigs are thin, fan-shaped with tightly appressed overlapping egg-shaped scale-like leaves that are 0.08” long, with a circular gland on the lower surface, an acute to sharp-pointed tip, and are sometimes slightly glaucous on the lower side.
Seed cones are bluish-purple to reddish-brown, glaucous, and become woodier when mature. They are rounded, 0.16 – 0.35”, with 5 – 7 scales with long-pointed umbos, and are not noticeably resinous. Each fertile scale has 1- 2 narrow-winged small seeds.
It is shade tolerant and tends to grow in swamps and bogs or other areas with consistent moisture.
Other Common Names: Atlantic White Cypress, Southern White Cedar, Whitecedar, False Cypress, White Cedar, White Cypress
Identifying Features: Atlantic White Cedar is a medium to tall tree with a conical crown, slender trunk, thick, irregularly grooved reddish-brown bark, short scale-like leaves on thin twigs with a circular gland on the lower leaf surfaces, and bluish-purple to reddish-brown rounded seed cones with 5 – 7 scales with long-pointed umbos that become woody when mature. It can be differentiated from other false cedars by its more cypress-like rounded seed cones with long-pointed umbos. It is frequently mistaken for Eastern Red Cedar, but that one has berry-like seed cones that are bluish, soft, and resinous.
Native Area: Atlantic coast of North America from Maine south to Georgia and along the Gulf of Mexico from Florida west to Mississippi, mostly within 100 miles of the coastline and less than a mile above sea level
USDA Growing Zones: 3 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 60 – 80 ft tall, 30 – 40 ft spread
15. Chilean Cedar (Austrocedrus chilensis)
Chilean Cedar is a monotypic genus from the temperate rainforest of the Andes in Chile and Argentina.
It has a narrow columnar to conical crown with a short trunk and reddish-brown to gray fibrous bark that peels in fine vertical strips.
Shoots are dense and flattened with scale-like, four-ranked leaves whose lateral leaves are much longer than the facials and curve inwards at the pointed tip, while the facial leaves are blunt and have inconspicuous glands on the upper surface and whitish stomatal bands below.
It is a dioecious tree with separate male and female trees.
Seed cones are 0.2 – 0.4” long, solitary, with four scales. Lower scales are small, sterile, and bent outwards, while upper scales are large and fertile, each with two unequally two-winged seeds per cone.
Its population is Near Threatened but increasing.
It is not introduced anywhere in North America.
Other Common Names: Cordillera Cypress, Austrocedrus, Chilean Incense Cedar
Identifying Features: Chilean Cedar is a medium-sized tree with a narrow columnar or conical crown, short trunk, reddish-brown to gray, fibrous bark, four-ranked scale-like leaves whose lateral leaves are much longer than the facial leaves, and 0.2 – 0.4” long, solitary seed cones with four scales including two lower scales that are small, sterile, and reflexed.
It can be differentiated from the Incense Cedars by its seed cones with only four scales, very short stalks, and outer scales that are half or less than half the length of the inner scales, and from Western Red Cedar whose ellipsoid seed cones have roughly equal-sized overlapping scales with sharp-pointed triangular umbos.
Native Area: Temperate rain forests and adjacent steppe forests of central-southern Chile and western Argentina from 33°S to 44°S
USDA Growing Zones: 8 (7 with protection) to 10
Average Size at Maturity: 40 to 50 ft tall, 15 – 35 ft spread
16. New Zealand Cedar (Libocedrus bidwillii)
New Zealand Cedar is a medium-sized tree with a long bare trunk with an open pyramidal to conical crown of heavy, somewhat horizontally spreading branches that form distinctive pillowy masses.
The bark is reddish-brown, thin, fibrous, and shredding in narrow strips.
Twigs are somewhat flattened when young with two tightly packed lateral rows of leaves but become four-sided with age with four-ranked closely appressed scale-like leaves when mature.
It is a monoecious tree with separate male and female cones on the same tree.
Pollen cones are 0.28 – 0.43” long, borne singly at the tips of short twigs.
Seed cones are egg-shaped, about 0.3” long, with four woody scales, each with a strongly protruding sharp-pointed curved umbo. There are two fertile scales, each with one seed.
It is Near Threatened, but its population is stable.
It is not listed as introduced in the USDA Plants Database.
Other Common Names: Pāhautea, Kaikawaka, Mountain Cedar
Identifying Features: New Zealand Cedar is a medium-sized tree with a long bare trunk with an open pyramidal to conical crown of heavy horizontally spreading branches with pillowy masses of leaves, thin reddish-brown fibrous bark, juvenile leaves in horizontal rows plus four-ranked scale-like mature leaves, and egg-shaped seed cones with four woody scales each with a strongly protruding and curved umbo. It can be differentiated from the incense cedars and the Thuja cedars by its strongly protruding and sharp-pointed curved umbo and from the other Libocedrus, which tend to have more fern-like than scale-like leaves.
Native Area: Endemic to the western half of the north and south islands of New Zealand
USDA Growing Zones: 7 – 10
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 68 ft tall, 15 – 20 ft spread
17. Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata)
This is an interesting false cedar that is not even a conifer but is so commonly called Spanish Cedar that I included it here.
It’s a deciduous tree of the Meliaceae (Mahogany) family of flowering plants, more closely related to the Neem tree than any cedar.
Leaves are pinnate, 1 ft long, with 17 – 19 leaflets that are 3.15 – 4.75” long on ½” long stalks (petiolules). The leaflet margin is entire or serrate, and the tip is sharp-pointed to acute.
It’s monecious with separate male and female flowers that are oblong to ellipsoid with five-lobed calyxes and five free, white, 0.32” long hairy petals with a short-pointed tip.
The fruit is an oblong to ellipsoid hairless woody capsule 1.6” long.
Its native population is Vulnerable and decreasing.
It’s been introduced worldwide for its lumber and fast growth and has become invasive in Africa and the Pacific Islands.
Other Common Names: Cedar, Cedarwood, Cigar Box Cedar, West Indian Cedar, Cedro, Cedro Real (Spanish), or Cedro-aromatico (Portuguese)
Identifying Features: Spanish Cedar is a deciduous monecious flowering tree with 1 ft long, pinnate leaves with 17 – 19, 3.15 – 4.75” long leaflets on ½” long stalks (petiolules) with entire or serrate margins, and sharp-pointed to acute tips. It produces white monecious flowers with five-lobed calyxes and five free white hairy petals, and oblong to ellipsoid 1.6” long hairless woody capsules. It is impossible to confuse this tree with any other cedar or false cedar with its deciduous pinnate leaves and its flowers.
Native Area: West Indies, Central America, South America south to Paraguay and southeastern Brazil Atlantic rain forest
USDA Growing Zones: 9 – 12
Average Size at Maturity: 100 – 130 ft (to 200 ft) tall, 100 – 130 ft spread
Growing Cedar Trees in Your Garden
Because ‘cedar’ trees are such a diverse group of trees from different families with different growing requirements, it is more challenging to give general tips about growing them in your garden. You will need to look at the specific type of cedar tree you want to grow and then do some research to ensure success.
In addition to understanding the USDA Planting Zones, you must check your chosen tree’s soil, light, and moisture requirements and compare that to your site. Check out How to Pick A Tree For Your Yard for more information.
Stunningly Diverse Cedars
Regardless of what family they belong to, cedar trees tend to be long-lived to exceptionally long-lived trees.
True cedars are relatively short-lived for this group but still can reach ages of 400 years or more.
One Cryptomeria in Japan known as Jōmon Sugi on Yakushima Island is estimated to be between 2170 and 7200 years old.
The oldest confirmed Western Red Cedar is 1460 years old and is found in the Sooke River watershed on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada.
Some surviving Chilean Cedars are believed to be over 1500 years old.
The oldest Eastern Red Cedar was 795 years old from Missouri, USA.
So many different trees are referred to as cedar partly because of their often similar-looking reddish-brown fibrous bark but also their often similar-looking scented wood with similar properties.
Cedar wood tends to be lightweight and easy to work with but is also incredibly durable and resistant to rot. It has long been used for boat-building, boxes, bowls, weapons, tools, roofing, furniture, and construction.
Cedar, particularly Thuja, also makes a very good fire starter and is easily the most favored type of kindling in North America.
Cedar woods are also known to repel moths and other insects and are often used in closets to repel moths from clothing.
Fragrant oil extracted from the true cedars was used in mummification procedures in ancient Egypt.
Native Americans used Thuja and Juniperus resins to repel mosquitoes and other unwanted pests.
Cedar trees provide habitats and nesting sites for birds, rodents, and invertebrates, as well as important cover for larger animals, including deer, bears, elk, and more.
Old-growth Western Red Cedars get so large they used to be used as winter denning sites by black bears, and their rot-resistant stumps are still frequently used to this day.
Their often tall size makes them ideal roosting sites for traveling or migrating birds as well as bats.
Cedar trees are an incredibly diverse, beautiful, and versatile group of trees. Now that you have learned so much more about them, you can use your newfound skills to go out and identify all of the gorgeous cedar trees around you.
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Lyrae grew up in the forests of BC, Canada, where she got a BSc. in Environmental Sciences.
Her whole life, she has loved studying plants, from the tiniest flowers to the most massive trees.
She is currently researching native plants of North America and spends her time traveling, hiking, documenting, and writing.
When not researching, she is homeschooling her brilliant autistic son, who travels with her and benefits from a unique hands-on education about the environment around him.