Contributed by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

  Calocedrus decurrens- three types of cones.
Photo by Pat Breen, University of Oregon.

Calocedrus is a word of Greek origin meaning “beautiful cedar.” The beautiful part of the genus name is correct, as this evergreen is a rich green beauty. But the second part of the name is incorrect: this tree is not a cedar. As you walk around Morris Arboretum, you will notice that the only cedars (Cedrus) are native to the mountains of the western Himalayas and the Mediterranean region−think Cedars of Lebanon; no Cedrus is native to North America.

Decurrens means “running down” referring to the arrangement of the male cones at the tips of the branchlets. The male (pollen) cones develop in the winter, while the female (seed) cones develop later, first looking like green urns, and then maturing to look like brown duck bills.

California incense-cedar is the common name, a helpful reminder that this is a Western N.A. native whose crushed leaves emit a fragrance reminiscent of the spicy smell of newly sharpened pencils.  As a matter of fact, the wood from Calocedrus decurrens is the most common wood used to make pencils in the U.S. today. Since the tree can grow to 200 feet, one tree can generate a lot of pencils!

  Callicarpa americana- beautiful violet berry-like drupes.
Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.

Incense-cedar is purposefully hyphenated; the hyphen is botanical shorthand that alerts one that the common name is misleading, i.e. this is not a cedar. Other examples of hyphens used this way in the Morris Arboretum Catalogue of Plants are umbrella-pine, which is not a pine; plum-yew, which is not a yew; and China-fir, which is not a fir.

I am particularly interested in Calocedrus decurrens as I endowed one in the Fragrance Garden at The Arboretum at Penn State, my alma mater.  Since they can live for more than 1000 years, I consider it a long-term investment! If you are ever in State College, PA, I suggest a visit to this lovely, free, and ever-expanding garden, newly opened in 2010.

Callipcarpa is another genus grown at Morris Arboretum that, like Calocedrus, also takes its  name from a Greek word for beautiful. Callicarpa means “beautiful fruit” and its common name is beautyberry. And if you have any friends named Calli, I am sure they are beautiful also!

The locations of the three Calocedrus (grown from seed, no less) and the 44 Callicarpa at Morris Arboretum are available on the Morris Arboretum Collection Connection. With luck you will identify the three types Calocedrus cones and, before they are all eaten by birds and mammals, find the beautyberries of Callicarpa!


Katherine has her Certificate in Botany from the New York Botanical Garden and is a botanical tour guide and freelance writer.