The Lebanon cedar is the national tree of Lebanon, was known to antiquity, and is frequently mentioned in the Bible. It is a distinctive and magnificent tree. These evergreen coniferous trees can grow to a height of 40 metres (or 140 feet). The canopy above a mature tree extends to a similar diameter, creating an impression of great bulk. The trunk can extend to 2.5 metres or 8 feet in diameter. The wood is highly prized for its strength, distinctive pink colour, and resinous aroma. The wood is often used for storage chests because the smell is repugnant to insects.
The Lebanon cedar was formally given the name Cedrus libana by the French botanist Achille Richard in 1823. It is instantly recognised by the way in which branches extend from the central trunk. The cedars of Lebanon can be distinguished from two similar species because the branches turn to the horizontal once they leave the main trunk. This creates a layered appearance in the foliage.
Other species of cedar which are found in the Himalayas and North Africa do not branch in the same way. A variant known as the Turkish cedar is believed to be a subspecies. Scientists are divided as to whether the Cyprus cedar is a subspecies of the Lebanon cedar but generally regard it as an independent species. The cedar trees native to northwest America have no botanic affiliation with those of Eurasia. In North America the word cedar is used in a different context.
The Eurasian cedars are believed to share a common ancestor which differentiated into independent species when pockets became genetically isolated during the last ice age.
In their natural habitat the Cedars of Lebanon can be found in mountainous regions of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and neighbouring parts of Jordan at altitudes of between 1,000 and 2,000 m. In places, the cedars of Lebanon grow alone in single species forests. Elsewhere, these trees grow in mixed forests alongside Cilician fir, European black pine and juniper.
Although much deforested, the best place to see these trees remains in Lebanon at the Chouf Cedar Reserves, the Jaj Cedar Reserve, the Tannourine Reserve, the Ammouaa and Karm Shbat Reserves in the Akkar district, and the Forest of the Cedars of God near Bcharri. Unfortunately, even in Lebanon there are few old trees remaining.
Fortunately, conservation measures are now in place in both Turkey and Lebanon to conserve this magnificent species. In Turkey the emphasis is upon extensive new plantings. In Lebanon a combined strategy of replanting and conservation of mature tress is preferred. Historically, though, these efforts are not new. The Roman Emperor Hadrian issued an edict to protect the cedars of Lebanon in 118 AD. In another era, Queen Victoria financed the construction of a “goat wall” to protect the Cedars of the Gods near Bsharr.
The cedars of Lebanon can also be seen within the grounds of many British manor houses. The first trees were first brought to England from Syria in the 1640s. A planting frenzy followed when these trees became fertile in the eighteenth century.
Unfortunately, many of these trees are past their prime and have suffered from a curious habit among Lebanese cedars to shed limbs for no apparent reason. Generally, though, the trees are able to thrive in a British temperate climate. They only suffer in conditions of extreme wind, such as the severe gales of 1987 and 1990, or in conditions of extreme cold.