Friday, June 29, 2007

Cedars, gods, and Gilgamesh

From far off they saw the Cedar Mountain,
sacred to Ishtar, where the gods dwell,
the slopes of it steep, and rich in cedars
with their sharp fragrance and pleasant shade.(1)

The most stately of trees, the cedars should be used only as specimen plants, according to tree guru Michael Dirr.(2) The handsome cedar at Evergreen School is used just that way. Standing alone on the lawn and set against the backround of the brick building, the tree catches our eye and invites our admiration. Still somewhat youthful, the cedar has not yet developed the broadening and horizontality of its crown that come with advancing age. Cedars live for many hundreds of years. Give it time.

The cedar's majestic beauty is complemented by rich biblical, historic, and literary associations. The Phoenicians built their ships of decay-resistant cedar of Lebanon and carried on an export trade in the wood. The Palermo Stone --- I couldn't resist --- provides the earliest written record of international timber trade. It documents the transport of 40 shiploads of cedar logs from Lebanon to Egypt in about 2600 B.C.(3) The First Book of Kings relates that Solomon's temple was built using cedar supplied by the Phoenician King Hiram of Tyre. Cedar wood was quite valuable in the ancient world, as can be gleaned from the words of Humbaba, the monster charged with guarding the sacred cedar forest in The Epic of Gilgamesh:

Gilgamesh, have mercy.
Let me live here in the Cedar Forest.
If you spare my life I will be your slave.
I will give you as many cedars as you wish.
You are king of Uruk by the grace of Shamash,
honor him with a cedar temple
and a glorious cedar palace for yourself.
All this is yours, if only you spare me.(4)

Cedars of Lebanon have been under attack by man in their native range at least since the time of Gilgamesh, 4700 years ago. The only serious attempt to protect the trees from ruthless exploitation until very recent times was made by the Roman emperor Hadrian, who placed boundaries around the cedar forests and declared them his imperial domain. Lebanon, whose flag includes an image of a cedar, has only a few square miles of cedar forest left.(5)

None of the native American trees that we commonly refer to as red or white cedar is a true cedar (genus Cedrus). Our "cedars" are junipers, arborvitae, false cypresses and others. The true cedars are all imports: cedar of Lebanon and its subspecies Atlas cedar and deodar cedar.(6) Atlas cedars, from the mountains of northern Africa, are quite common in our area, represented mostly by varieties with blue-grey foliage called blue Atlas cedars. There is a blue Atlas cedar on the Evergreen Avenue side of 1040 Hillside Avenue.

In nearby Middlesex County the weeping form of blue Atlas cedar enjoys enormous popularity; it is frequently found ornamenting curbside mailboxes.

The most striking example of weeping blue Atlas cedar I have seen, on Park Avenue in South Plainfield, looms over the sidewalk like a giant praying mantis waiting to snatch up and devour an unsuspecting passerby.

Deodar cedar is native to the Himalayas and is the national tree of Pakistan. I would identify the Evergreen School cedar as a deodar because of its long, flexible needles. The name deodar is Hindi and comes from Sanskrit devadaru "divine wood", another link between cedars and the gods.(7) I have stood in the shade of a cedar with a trunk diameter of 10 feet and felt the divine connection myself. Do we dare to use these trees as mailbox adornments?

(1) Gilgamesh, A New English Version, translated by Stephen Mitchell, Free Press, 2004, page 118.
(2) Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Michael Dirr, Stipes Publishing, 1998, page 197.
(3) Peter Ian Kuniholm, Wood, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, Eric Meyers, ed., New York, Oxford University Press, 1997,
(4) Gilgamesh, page 125.
(5) Rania Masri, 1995, The Cedars of Lebanon: Significance, Awareness, and Management of the Cedrus Libani in Lebanon,
The Epic of Gilgamesh poet as proto-environmentalist? Some commentators, including Rania Masri, make the case that Gilgamesh's cutting of the sacred cedars was intended to portray man's first great crime against the environment. They suggest that the gods forbade human entry to the Cedar Forest because they knew that humans would destroy the forest.
(6) I have taken the approach of the "lumpers", that there is one cedar species, cedar of Lebanon, and that Atlas and deodar cedars are geographic variants. Some botanists regard Atlas and deodar cedars as separate species, Cedrus atlantica and Cedrus deodara.
(7) For etymology aficionados: Hindi deodar from Sanskrit devadaru, "divine wood". The first half of the word is related to our words divine, deity, deus, and Zeus. The second half is related to durum, druid, tree, and true.

Copyright Gregory Palermo

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)

Those who think of New Jersey as home to such phenomena as the Sopranos, suburban sprawl, and pay-to-play politics should know this: the Garden State is also home to the best collection of dawn redwoods in the country. Matthew Belsky of Skidmore College, who keeps track of such things(1), finds six of the country's ten biggest, best, and oldest dawn redwoods within the borders of New Jersey. (You might not find one on the grounds of the Bada Bing! Club --- four of the best trees are in Princeton --- but dawn redwoods can be found if you look.) We have a few dawn redwoods in Plainfield. The most easily visible dawn redwood I know of in town is at 527 Belvidere Avenue between Seventh Street and South Avenue.

City Councilman Cory Storch made me aware of a dawn redwood that I had previously missed at 701 Belvidere Avenue. The tree is next to the driveway on Ravine Road.

A former owner of 1165 Hillside Avenue tells me that the dawn redwood in the backyard (visible over the roof of the house) was planted in the mid-1960s.

Dawn redwoods and bald cypresses both lose their needles in winter. The two species are distinguishable from one another by a few easily recognizable features. Dawn redwoods have "armpits" beneath their large branches, giving the trunk a heavily buttressed appearance. For the most part, dawn redwood twigs appear opposite each other roughly parallel to the ground; bald cypress twigs are arrayed in a spiral around the branch as seen in the end-on photograph below.

Also, dawn redwoods have larger leaves. The foliage is shown at about 1.3 times the actual size.

The photograph shows that the dawn redwood's leaves are opposite each other. If you hold a bald cypress twig almost up to your nose, you can see that its leaves are alternate, not opposite.

Bald cypresses are hard to find around here. Ambleside Gardens on Route 206 in Hillsborough has one that was planted in 1966 just inside the entrance to the nursery. There is another at 6 Calvert Avenue East in Edison, just off Grove Avenue.

Dawn redwood buttressing is well seen in a tree planted in 1949 at Princeton's Marquand Park. The size-reference dog in the photograph weighs 52 lbs.

As the photograph shows, the base of a mature dawn redwood spreads to become quite massive. This feature limits the usefulness of the species as a street tree. Maplewood, however, has used them as street trees since the 1950s and is rather well-known for its dawn redwoods. In my experience, young dawn redwoods are not at all tolerant of drought, another serious limitation for street tree use.
Dawn redwood was first discovered as a fossil in 1941 by a Japanese scientist working in occupied China during World War II. He assumed that the tree had been extinct for millions of years and created the first genus for an extinct plant, Metasequoia. In the same year, a Chinese scientist who had fled to China's remote interior to escape the Japanese invasion discovered a living example of an unfamiliar tree, identified five years later as the same species as the fossil dawn redwood. Seeds were sent to Harvard's Arnold Arboretum and distributed from there around the U.S. in 1948. The growth of dawn redwoods is legendarily fast. The tallest dawn redwood in this country is 140 feet tall, but the tree is not yet 70 years old.


Copyright Gregory Palermo

Sunday, June 3, 2007


Big, heart-shaped leaves that taper to a long point, showy white blooms, extravagantly long seed pods, and a bold winter silhouette --- everything about catalpas demands your attention. The exotic look shouldn't surprise; Catalpa speciosa is the nothernmost member of a family(1) of mostly tropical vines and trees that includes trumpet vines and Jacarandas.

The trees are in bloom now. A handsome example is at 806 Third Place near the corner of Crescent Avenue. The tree is just to the right of the driveway as you face the house.

Catalpa speciosa's native range is the midwest around Illinois, but farmers spread it around the country because the tree's wood makes good fence posts; it is very resistant to rot. Catalpas are also planted because their major pest, Catalpa sphinx caterpillar, makes excellent fishing bait. Professor Edward Gilman, formerly of Rutgers and a leading tree authority, reports that the caterpillar is juicy and has very tough skin, just what you want for catching catfish.(2) The caterpillars can be purchased online. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, Audubon Magazine reports that state extension services publish instructions on how to get your catalpa infested by sphinx caterpillars.(3)

One explanation for the tree's name is that it is an alteration of Catawba, the Indian tribe in whose territory the tree was first found. Indians used the leaves to make poultices to treat wounds. They are also said to have smoked the seed pods for their medicinal and hallucinogenic properties. Catalpa is known in England as "Indian bean tree".

Because they are messy, catalpas are not the most popular street trees. The trees drop some of their large leaves in summer. The seed pods are up to two feet in length and drop their seeds over a long season. The owner of the tree at 806 Third Place, a plant lover, relates that a former neighbor of hers once offered to cut down her beautiful catalpa at his expense because of the messiness.

(1) Bignoniaceae

(2) Edward F. Gilman and Dennis G. Watson, 1993

Copyright Gregory Palermo