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California incense-cedar

In North America, California incense-cedar is grown to make pencils. Its timber is soft, helping to make pencils easy to sharpen without splinters.
Cones of California incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) at Kew Gardens

About Kew's California incense-cedar trees

The main group of Calocedrus decurrens trees in the Gardens at Kew illustrates the trees' growth habit in our climate. In their warmer native western North America they look more like a cedar.

Take a closer look

  • From mid summer to late autumn look out for this tree’s unusual cones. They have only four scales, very occasionally six, and look almost like tiny books with scales for pages. They produce two-winged seeds that travel some distance on the wind.
  • See if you can pick up the fragrant scent of the foliage and resin. This cedar-like smell is one reason for its common name.

Tree biology

In its native USA, the California incense-cedar can grow to more than 60 m and has an open crown with level branches, just like true cedars. The cones grow on the end of sprays of small, scale-like leaves. Male cones are golden in colour, while the female ones are pale green. Both are found on each tree. 

It has an intrepid parasite – the cedar wood wasp lays its eggs in the tree after forest fires, often when the wood is still smouldering, and the larvae develop inside.

Cultivation and uses

In its native California this tree is grown for its timber. The wood is yellowish-brown, fine grained and soft – traits which make it ideal for use in pencils, as it sharpens without splintering. At the same time the timber is durable and is also used for fencing and building.

The tree is known for its slim elegant look, and its fragrant leaves and resin make it an appealing ornamental in British gardens.

Quick facts

  • Scientific name: Calocedrus decurrens
  • Family: Cupressaceae. This tree is not actually a cedar at all, but a member of the closely-related cypress family. The common name arose from the cedar-like smell of the wood.
  • Place of origin: western North America, from Oregon to Mexico.
  • Conservation status: threatened in the southern parts of its natural range.
  • Date planted: 1901
  • Height: 4.5 m. In ideal conditions these trees grow up to 60 m but rarely top 35 m in the UK.