Incense Cedar: Why Not the Pencil Tree?

Wine glasses, fleur de lis, pencils and casket liners?

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Shaggy bark of the Incense Cedar

From recent posts it might be concluded that many trees, including some of the cedars, have quite a few monikers. So why isn’t Pencil tree an alternative for the Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) ? Apparently there is something called a Pencil Tree, but it isn’t a plant that grows in the wild but instead is a slim fake Christmas tree. At least one book (North American Trees, Preston and Braham, 2002) does refer to this species as the Pencil-Cedar, but I didn’t not come across this designation elsewhere.

The Incense Cedar is native to the continent, but is only found in Oregon, California, Nevada, and Baja California. The eastern reach into Nevada may be because this tree, unlike others in the false-cypress family, doesn’t mind drier conditions. It isn’t normally found in a stand of the same species, but usually is the local specimen amongst others. Although its native habitat is limited, apparently it can be grown through much of the United States and is used as an ornamental.

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Leaves looking a bit like long-stemmed wine glasses.

Descriptions of the conifer’s leaves and cones are the most poetic I’ve yet encountered. The leaves are described as resembling long-stemmed wine glasses The opened seed cones are likened to both duck bills and the fleur-de-lis. The bark, cinnamon-colored, holds interest, too, and resembles that of the Paperbark Maple but in larger shreds. For a look at some older trees around the Portland, OR area, check out this blog: http://amycampion.com/incense-cedar-not-just-another-evergreen-tree. There is also a photo of the opened cone.

The largest example of this tree is known as the Devil’s Canyon Colossus and grows in California. Other large trees can be found in Oregon. Conifers.org says there is rumor of a tree that is over 930 years old, but without supporting evidence

Like most other conifers, this one had many uses for Native Americans, most similar to those of other evergreens. Breathing the steam from the leaves was used for upper respiratory ailments and a tea from the leaves could be brewed for stomach upsets. Baskets and brooms were made from the bark and boughs. Some Californian Native Americans may also have used the leaves as a flavoring agent. 

In the 1860s  and 70s the species’ lumber was used extensively for goldmine flumes. Current uses include closet liners, shingles, garden benches, boardwalks. On a macabre note, the wood has also been used to line both caskets and graves. The principle current use of the lumber, though, seems to be pencils.

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Pencils.com, a blog devoted to pencils, identifies Incense Cedar as the best wood for creating pencils. Other writers concur, but this wasn’t always the case. Pencils were first mass produced in Germany in 1662 and the first pencils in the New World were made in Massachusetts in1812. The first American factory opened in New York City in 1861. At first these writing implements were made of Eastern Red Cedar, but in the early 1900s, the Incense Cedar was found to have superior wood for their manufacture as it didn’t splinter easily and saw smooth.

There are plenty of odd facts about pencils, including that Napoleon wanted them as much as world domination. At one time bread crumbs were used as erasers. (Scum-X anyone?) Pencils were originally used on space flights but later banned. Many other sites include tidbits and other useless but interesting information about pencils and their history.

Although anti-dumping and other government sanctions have been applied to imported pencils from China, today the US may make fewer than 14%  of the world’s pencils. Incense cedar pencils may still be purchased here, although not all those sold are manufactured in America.

To find the (B114) Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) in the Fort Collins City Park Arboretum, you could park across from the second house from the NW corner of Oak and Jackson and walk directly into the park. The tree is located along City Park Drive, not far from the Giant Sequoia. There is a doggie bag station directly under the tree. To find the tag, walk into the branches. It is fun to see the tangled pattern they create when you look upwards as well. 

This particular specimen was planted in 1996 when its diameter was 3.5″.

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Incense Cedar with the doggie bag station visible under and behind it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gingko Tree–Most Unique Tree in the World?

A tree that hasn’t changed in 200 million years

I had no idea. Of course I’ve been bombarded with ads for the wonderful  memory properties of gingko biloba although I never tried it. I didn’t even know it was a tree, nor did I know it grew not only in the United States but right in our own City Park. My tree course mentioned there was a single species, family, and phylum for this tree, but it wasn’t until I started to research it that I learned the tree is a living fossil and hasn’t changed in over 200 million years!

According to the USDA map, the Ginkgo tree was introduced to the US. It is not widely distributed throughout the states, but seems to be very popular in New York and four or five other Eastern states.  Mississippi also has an affinity for this tree. The Gingko appears to be able to withstand the stress of city living, which might be one of the reasons they are very popular in New York City. According to one source, there are 21,611 Ginkgo trees in the city, a map or which can be seen here.

Once you see a Gingko leaf with its fan-like shape, the trees seem easy to identify. Although  there is only one tagged specimen in the park, I’m sure I found a leaf near a denuded tree very far away, too.

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Fan-shaped Gingko leaves as they start to turn in the fall.

Gingkos are often called the oldest trees or most unique plant on earth as they are the only species in their class, have not changed much in 200 million years, and have no close relatives. Peter Crane, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has written a book about the tree, Ginkgo (Yale University Press, 2013) and was interviewed about the tree here.

I did not encounter any seeds from the one tree in City Park, but they are said to be both messy and smelly, producing a compound that is common in rancid butter. Crane says they smell like vomit. Due to this, usually only male trees are planted. I’m assuming this tree is male, although the same source indicated that the trees don’t produce seeds until they are thirty-forty years old.

Similar to the tenet “form follows function” of the Arts and Crafts and other architectural movements, the herbal uses of this tree seem to relate to its biological history. Most of the medicinal uses  relate to many problems associated with aging, such as heart trouble, macular degeneration, tinnitus, as well as it best known use as an herb to improve memory. Components of the plant have long been used in Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Indonesian medicine.

For those of you who might like to explore more about this fascinating tree, there is an all-encompassing blog that includes a history of some of the most interesting Gingko trees from around the world, the use of the leaves in art, and even a Gingko lullaby.

To find this tree, also known as the Maidenhair tree, look for A72 on the map. Basically it is across from the entrance to City Park Pool, right in front of the picnic shelter #6 on the corner of S. Bryan and City Park Drive.  Without its leaves, it looks much smaller than this picture!P9290007-2