April 18, 2024

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“The righteous will flourish like the palm tree; it will grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” Thus glosses the Bible what will happen to the person following the Christian doctrine. The comparison is not trivial, since the cedar of Lebanon (cedrus libani) is an impressive species that easily reaches 40 meters in height. In that country it occupies such an honorable position as to appear on its national flag. It was traded on a large scale, and its forests were so heavily exploited that they nearly became extinct. Fortunately, Lebanon currently has several nature reserves where you can admire them in their habitat. The one that occupies the largest area is that of Al-Shouf, where you can admire some imposing hundred-year-old cedars, where the characteristic aroma of these trees accompanies each step. Even the smallest fragment of its bark or wood keeps a fragrance that is difficult to forget.

Egyptians and Babylonians valued this resistant and rot-resistant wood so much that they used it to build temples and ships. At present, mosques and stately buildings are still built with it, mainly with cedars grown in Turkey. Entering one of these recent constructions is a sensory experience of the first order, again thanks to the perfume of its aromatic wood.

King Solomon’s temple, in Jerusalem, was justly built of cedar, though in the Bible a previous construction raised with its wood appears, in fact it is the father of Solomon, King David, who mentions it in his own words: “I live in a house of cedar, but the ark of the covenant of the Lord is under a store”. The mention of the cedar in the sacred scriptures is continuous, as in Psalms 29:5: “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; yes, the Lord tears the cedars of Lebanon to pieces”, alluding to the strength that must be had to tear apart these imposing living beings.

Huge hundred-year-old cedar from Lebanon at the gates of the Prado Museum, Madrid.
Huge hundred-year-old cedar from Lebanon at the gates of the Prado Museum, Madrid.Edward Beard

Formerly, it was considered that there were four species of cedars, but at present they have been grouped into only three. In this way, we have the aforementioned cedar of Lebanon (cedrus libani), Himalayan cedar (cedrus deodara) —which can exceed 50 meters in height— and the Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica). The fourth species, Cedrus brevifoliatends to be considered a variety of the cedar of Lebanon, cedrus libani var. brevifolia, which grows on the island of Cyprus. As can be seen, the three cedar species are linked to large mountain ranges, hence their resistance to both hot and cold environments throughout the year, as well as very mineral substrates. Also, once established, they perfectly withstand seasonal drought, so they prefer not to have excess moisture at the roots.

The anatomy of its branches is very peculiar, made up of short twigs (brachyblasts) —with needle-shaped leaves grouped as if they were a shaving brush— that sit on longer branches (macroblasts). These needle-like leaves vary in length, depending on the species, with the longest being those of the Himalayan cedar and the shortest those of the Atlas cedar.

The presence of the cedar of Lebanon in the cities is almost testimonial, taking the palm for the number of specimens both in the Himalayas and in the Atlas. Of the first, in the city of Madrid, there are a little more than 8,000 feet, while of the second some 8,500 vegetate, as recalled by the Pocket guide to the trees of Madrid by Antonio Morcillo.

Himalayan cedar 27 meters high in the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.
Himalayan cedar 27 meters high in the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid.Edward Beard

To differentiate one species from the other, it is best to appreciate the characteristic drooping twigs of the Himalayan cedar, which give it a slight ghost appearance when young, something that is usually absent in the more horizontal twigs of the Atlas cedar. In addition, the latter often presents more glaucous colors in its needles, as well as branches in the upper part of the crown at angles close to 45° upward inclination. In any case, on many occasions ascribing mature cedars to one species or another can be complicated, even due to their natural tendency to hybridize easily. With the younger specimens identification is somewhat easier.

The female cones or cones of the cedars grow erect on the branches, and they decompose scale by scale to release their seeds, until leaving only the rachis on which they settled. You may have once found yourself under a cedar tree with the tops of these pine cones, which appear to be like roses with wooden petals. If not, it is always a good time to go for a walk and go in search of a hundred-year-old cedar, to admire these revered giants for centuries.

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