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Cedars of Lebanon, the Himalayas and Cyprus

Even North Africa's Atlas Mountains boasts a gorgeous specimen

Blue Atlas cedar has horizontal branches with comparatively short needles arranged in whirls and pine cones that form in late summer. Photo by Ellen Barcel.

September 25, 2012 | 01:04 PM
For several years, I've noticed some absolutely unique — and gorgeous — evergreens with bluish needles growing in the area. There's at least one small one growing on my way to the newspaper office in Setauket and an absolutely magnificent specimen in front of the North Shore Public Library. They are definitely not Colorado blue spruce.

Recently, a gardening friend of mine helped me identify this blue-needled tree, a blue Atlas cedar. The other true cedar I've seen growing as a specimen tree on Long Island is the deodar cedar.

There are five true (botanical) cedars:

• Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodora), a native of the Himalaya Mountains.

• Lebanon cedar (C. libani), a native of the mountains of Lebanon.

• Turkish cedar (C. libani subsp. stenocoma), a native of the mountains of Turkey.

• Cyprus cedar (C. brevifolia), a native of the mountains of Cyprus.

• Atlas cedar (C. atlantica), a native of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria in North Africa.

Notice that all of the true cedars are natives of mountainous areas. Does this mean that you can't grow them on Long Island? Not at all. I planted a golden deodar cedar on my property about five years ago. It's doing beautifully, surviving the winters very well.

The key here is environment. Cedars are native to mountains that have cold winters. Long Island generally has cold winters, not brutally cold, but cold enough that we get snow. We are considered to be in hardiness zone 7. Checking out the climate range for Cyprus cedar it's zone 5 to 8, the deodar cedar is zone 7 through 9 and the Atlas cedar is zone 6 through 8, so all will do well here. In general, cedars prefer well-drained soil, again, another plus for surviving Long Island's environment. Our sandy soil drains quickly. Since cedars are in general drought tolerant once established, they survive Long Island's occasional summer droughts.

Besides being absolutely unique and beautiful trees, they tend to be somewhat salt spray tolerant meaning that if you have waterfront property (not property that floods but that is affected by salt spray) or have a location that frequently picks up salt spray from roads in the icy winter, consider planting a cedar.

In general, cedars, known for their fragrant, insect-repelling wood, become large trees. The spread can be enormous. For example, the spread on the Atlas cedar is anywhere from 25 to 40 feet according to the U.S. Forest Service. So, if you have fallen in love with this unique tree, consider it as a specimen tree and give it lots of room. Don't plant it too near a walkway or the street or you'll find yourself pruning it quite a bit and that would destroy its beautiful pyramidal shape. Other than that, cedars need very little pruning. Just don't plant them where they would interfere with electric wires.

The blue Atlas cedar has a weeping variety ('Glauca Pendula') which is stunning. It reaches a mature height of about 10 feet tall and about 15 to 20 feet wide. It needs full sun and like most cedars, a well-drained soil.

Cedars are conifers, that is, do not flower, but produce cones — male and female — but only the female cones produce seeds. While many plants are pollinated by various insects, cedars are pollinated by the wind.

As I mentioned in several previous articles, many different plants can have the same common name, making it a bit confusing for the gardener. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about the African daisy, where at least six different plants are commonly called African daisies.

Well, "cedars" are no different. The Siberian pine (Pinus sibirica) is sometimes called the Siberian cedar, but it's not a true cedar (Cedrus). Other plants sometimes called cedars are Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), Mountain cedar (Juniperus ashei), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria) and Mexican white cedar (Cupressus lusitanica, a member of the cypress family), among others. Since these "cedars" are not really cedars, you, as a gardener, can't assume that they'll grow the same way with the same requirements as true cedars. So, when selecting a new tree to add to your garden, check the botanical name and do your homework.

Although true cedars are not native to North America, they are not considered invasive by the U.S. Forest Service at this point and are elegant and unique specimen evergreens which are well adapted to Long Island's climate.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener Program, call 727-7850.

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