People interested in pencils have been particularly excited lately about a pencil being made by Musgrave, a 100+ year old pencil company based in Shelbyville, Tennessee (a.k.a. Pencil City). This pencil is especially unique because it is made from the wood of Juniperus virginiana, known commonly as Tennessee red cedar, eastern red cedar, aromatic cedar, and (yes, even) pencil cedar. For anyone who may have been around in the early 1900’s, this wouldn’t seem like anything special, as it was not uncommon for pencils at that time to made from this wood. However, around the mid-20th century J. virginiana was largely replaced by Calocedrus decurrens as the wood of choice for pencil making, and few (if any) have been made with J. virginiana since then. Hence, Musgrave’s new pencil, fittingly named Tennessee Red Cedar, is a momentous occasion.
Pencils today are made from a variety of different woods and wood-adjacent materials (see Wopex pencils), each having their pros and cons and each being loved, hated, or something in between by people who care about pencils. However, pencils made from cedar – Juniperus virginiana and Calocedrus decurrens in particular – tend to be among the most preferred. These woods are soft, attractive, rot resistant, sharpen easily without splintering, and take well to wood stain or lacquer, not to mention they smell great. But if you’re like me and you’re interested in plant names and plant taxonomy, you may have already noticed something – the trees these pencils are made of aren’t cedars at all, at least not in the botanical sense.
Calocedurus decurrens, commonly known as California incense cedar (or simply, incense cedar), is a large tree in the cypress family (Cupressaceae) that occurs in western North America, mainly in California and Oregon. It’s known for its drought-tolerance and fire-resistance, and humans have found numerous uses for it over many centuries (millennia, even). Juniperus virginiana is also in the cypress family and naturally occurs in eastern North America. As a pioneer species, it is one of the first trees to colonize recently disturbed landscapes. Its rot resistant wood makes it an ideal choice for fence posts and many other products. Its heartwood has a red-purple color to it, which is particularly attractive, especially when contrasted with its pale sapwood (see photo of pencils above).
Both of these species, as well as others that are commonly referred to as cedars, have scale-like leaves and small cones. They are more appropriately referred to as false cedars. True cedars, on the other hand, are members of the genus Cedrus and mainly occur in the Mediterranean region and the western Himalayas. As members of the pine family (Pinaceae), their leaves are needles, which are borne in clusters atop peg-like stems that form along branches. Their cones are large and barrel-shaped and grow on the tops of branches.
So why the common name confusion? This likely comes from the fact that wood harvested from both groups of trees share similar qualities and have similar uses. While there are no trees in the genus Cedrus native to North America, the wood of species in the genera Juniperus, Thuja, Calocedrus, and Chamaecyparis (which are found in North America) have fragrant, soft, rot-resistant wood that makes great construction material for a variety of things, including pencils. The name cedar simply has more to do with the wood than the genetic relationships or morphological similarities among these species.
In addition to their new Tennessee Red Cedar pencil, Musgrave also recently produced a pencil made from old Tennessee red cedar slats that have been sitting in a storage building since the 1930’s. These limited edition pencils are a true throwback to pencils of old. If you write or draw with wood-cased pencils, it’s worth considering the trees they came from. While it’s not always obvious what wood or material a pencil is made of, the story behind “cedar” pencils illustrates that there is more to a pencil than its name alone.