The Cedars of Pencils

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.

The Tennessee Red Cedar Pencil

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).

General’s Cedar Pointe – a natural, unfinished pencil made from California incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)

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.

“Natural cedar” pencils most likely made from Calocedrus decurrens

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.

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Read more about Tennessee Red Cedar pencils at Pencil Revolution and The Weekly Pencil.

Cedar Confusion

This is a guest post by Jeremiah Sandler. Words by Jeremiah. Photos by Daniel Murphy (except where noted).

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What makes a cedar a cedar?

I recently asked this question to a professor of mine because I kept hearing individuals in the field refer to many different species as “cedars”. It was puzzling to me because, being the taxonomy-nerd that I am, most of these plants are in entirely different plant families but still called the same thing. Yes, sometimes common names overlap with one another regionally; avoiding that mix up is the purpose of binomial nomenclature in the first place! So, what gives?! Why are 50+ different species all called cedars?

This professor is a forester, not a botanist. He told me the word “cedar” describes the wood. Turns out, after some research and conversation, that’s all there was to it. As defined by Google, a cedar is:

Any of a number of conifers that typically yield fragrant, durable timber, in particular.

Cedar wood is a natural repellent of moths, is resistant to termites, and is rot resistant. A good choice of outdoor lumber.

I was hoping to find either a phylogenetic or taxonomic answer to what makes a cedar a cedar. I didn’t. Taxonomic relationships between organisms are one of the most exciting parts of biology. Thankfully, some solace was found in the research:

There are true cedars and false cedars.

True cedars are in the family Pinaceae and in the genus Cedrus. Their leaves are short, evergreen needles in clusters. The female cones are upright and fat, between 3 – 4 inches long. Their wood possesses cedar quality, and they are native to the Mediterranean region and the Himalayas.

False cedars are in the family Cupressaceae, mostly in the following genera: Calocedrus, Chamaecyparis, Juniperus, and Thuja. Their leaves are scale-y, fan-like sprays. Female cones are very small, about half an inch long, and remain on the tree long after seed dispersal. The bark is often both reddish and stringy or peely. Their wood possesses cedar quality. It is easy to separate them from true cedars, but less obvious to tell them from one another. These false cedars are native to East Asia and northern North America.

I couldn’t do away with the umbrella term “cedar.” Every naturalist can agree that one of the most pleasurable things while outdoors looking at plants is identifying them. I have set a new objective to correctly identify and differentiate between all of the cedars and false cedars, rather than simply calling them cedars. I guess I’m just fussy like that.

Drought Tolerant Plants: The Junipers

When I first developed a real interest in plants, I was in the heyday of my zine writing career. As my interest in gardening grew, writing a zine about it became inevitable. Initially I envisioned the zine as a journal of sorts – the journal of a budding horticulturist (pun intentional). Since I was new to gardening – and plants in general – the zine was meant to follow my journey as I explored this new world.

A zine needs a name though, so what would I call it? It didn’t take long for me to land on, The Juniper. I was familiar with a common disdain for the unsightly, overgrown, neglected, evergreen shrub full of spiders and cobwebs that for whatever reason was at one point planted right outside just about every house in America (a fire hazard, by the way). I was aware that many people were resorting to tearing them out, cursing as they battled the pokey, dirty, half dead things.

That was basically all I knew about junipers – they were common landscape plants that were just as commonly despised. My affection for freaks, geeks, outsiders, and rejects led me to name my zine after a shrub that everyone hated. I guess I just felt like we had something in common, and that despite being the bane of people’s existence, it deserved some recognition.

the juniper zine

And it does. Junipers are an important species in their natural habitats. In some areas they are dominant features to the point where entire plant communities are named after them. Consider the piñon-juniper woodlands of western North America – prominent steppe habitats that occur throughout high desert regions and support diverse forms of wildlife unique to this part of the world. Dan Johnson writes in the book, Steppes, “the piñon-juniper zone dominates huge expanses of the West in varying stages of  health, providing a wealth of habitats and resources to the wildlife and the people who call it home.”

Johnson goes on to describe some of these habitats:

In the Colorado Plateau this zone is dominated by Pinus edulis and Juniperus osteosperma, with J. scopulorum occupying drainages with more moisture. In the Great Basin, P. edulis is replaced by P. monophylla as the dominant piñon pine, still mixing with J. osteosperma, yet as one moves west, this juniper is increasingly replaced by J. occidentalis. Move farther north, and J. occidentalis dominates completely, with neither piñon pine making an appearance.

The genus Juniperus is in the cypress family (Cupressaceae) and includes up to 67 species, at least 13 of which are native to North America. They are long-lived plants that range from prostrate, sprawling groundcovers to expansive, bushy shrubs to tall, narrow trees. Their foliage is evergreen and can be either needle-like or scale-like. Most juniper species have needle-like foliage in their seedling and juvenile stages and then scale-like foliage at maturity. Some species, like J. communis, never develop scale-like foliage. Junipers are gymnosperms, so their reproductive structures are housed in cones. However, their cones are fleshy and so are commonly (and mistakenly) referred to as berries or fruits. Juniper cones are most often blue or gray-blue, but in some species they have a red, brown, or orange hue.

In general, junipers are quite drought tolerant, particularly those species that are adapted to hot, dry climates. Again referring to piñon-juniper steppes, Johnson writes, “in prolonged periods of drought, the piñon pines seem to suffer long before the junipers; whole hillsides of pine may go brown, leaving islands of olive-green juniper relatively unscathed.” In the book, Shrubs of the Great Basin, Hugh Mozingo attributes this drought toughness to the scale-like leaves: “Because they are smaller and so closely appressed to the twigs, these scale-like leaves are a superior adaptation to the frequently very dry conditions in piñon-juniper communities.” This herculean ability to survive on little water makes them a great addition to a dry garden.

But we may first have to get over our disdain for them. As this post on Chicago Botanic Garden’s website puts it: “Junipers have suffered from overuse and underimagination.” (This article also examines our hatred of juniper bushes). Probably a bigger problem is that, like so many other plants used in a landscape, mature height and width often isn’t taken into consideration, and rather than removing a plant when it gets too big for the site, sheers or a hedge trimmer are regularly deployed. I’m not a huge fan of the sheered look. I much prefer a more natural form to the boxes and globes that are so common in commercial and residential plantings. I’m even less of a fan of the misguided inclination to force a plant to fit in a space that it isn’t meant to be (unless you’re a bonsai artist, I guess). This treatment is what leads to exposing the ugly, brown insides of a juniper shrub – an unsightly look that only makes people hate them more.

Brown insides of juniper shrub exposed after years of forcing the plant to fit in a site that is too small for its britches.

Brown insides of juniper shrub exposed after years of forcing the plant to fit in an improper site.

There are numerous commercially available cultivars of juniper species, offering a plethora of sizes, shapes, and forms as well as various colors of foliage. For small or narrow areas, select dwarf varieties or columnar forms that won’t need to be kept in check, and in all cases let the plant express its authentic self, controlling the urge to sheer and shape it against its will.

As if their natural beauty and low water requirement wasn’t enough, junipers are also great for supporting wildlife. Birds and other animals use them for cover and for nesting sites. The fleshy cones are edible, the shredding bark is used for nesting material, and the evergreen foliage provides much needed protection during winter months. Oh and, among many other benefits that junipers offer humans, their aromatic, fleshy cones have culinary value and are used to flavor gin.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I am opposed to pruning and shaping shrubs. For aesthetic reasons, I think it should be done. However, my opinion is that unnatural shapes should be avoided. Sure, boxed hedge rows have their place in certain types of gardens, but my preference is towards more natural shapes. The following video by University of Illinois Extension provides a brief tutorial on how to achieve that.