Hansen's Northwest Native Plant Database

Calocedrus decurrens (Incense Cedar)



 Plantae – Plants


 Tracheobionta – Vascular plants


 Spermatophyta – Seed plants


 Coniferophyta – Conifers






 Cupressaceae – Cypress family


 Calocedrus Kurz – incense cedar


 Calocedrus decurrens (Torr.) Florin – incense cedar

Plant Brief: A handsome evergreen, with a distinctive columnar form to heights of 90.’ Growing at mid to high elevations throughout the Oregon Cascades and south into Baja, California (hardy USDA 5-8), this species can tolerate extremes of moisture and temperature, but prefers areas with summer drought.

The lustrous foliage of this tree is densely massed and vivid green, flowing right to the ground. The bark is scaled and reddish brown and the cones are small, with six scales.

This fast-growing cedar is a wise choice for hedges and screens, especially used along driveways and borders, as it can be sheared to desirable shapes. Such a hedge will protect your privacy, reduce your heating bills and minimize noise, while attracting wildlife and filling the air with its distinct perfume.

The following article was written by Jennifer Bosvert

Description: Growing in a pyramidal to narrowly conical form, it is very popular in formal plantings and often seen lining roads or walkways.

Widely used in parks and landscaping, the Incense Cedar is probably the most well-known of the Pacific northwest native false cedars.

Unlike the other native false cedars, the Incense Cedar prefers drier, even drought prone areas. In drier areas, the thick green foliage creates a lush backdrop that may be harder to achieve with other trees.

Similar in stature to the Western Red Cedar, the Incense Cedar grows to 100’-150’, and 500 years old. The trunk creates the familiar wide base of weathered gray bark, tapering up to a narrowly conical crown. The reddish bark (that weathers gray) grows thick and fibrous, and may be irregularly furrowed up to four inches deep. The lower limbs drape gracefully towards the ground, clothed in thick green foliage.

The scale-like leaves are a dark blue-green with no white markings underneath, and are easy to differentiate from other false cedars by the longer scales that resemble the shape of a long-stemmed wine glass. The lush foliage has a pungent, spicy odor when crushed. Male flowers are small and golden-yellow in color, while the cones resemble one-inch long green urns that open into a brown “open duck’s bill.”

Habitat and Range: One of the principal trees of the California forest, the natural habitat of Calocedrus decurrens begins in the north on the dry southeast slope of Mt. Hood, south through the Cascades of Oregon into California, where it stretches west to the ocean, east to Nevada and south to Baja. Although Incense Cedar prefers drier areas for its native habitat, this extremely adaptable tree also grows well in damper places.

Ornamental Values: The lush foliage of this drought resistant and adaptable tree speaks for its ornamental value.

Trees grown in open areas will form perfect narrow pyramids and are widely seen in domestic landscaping. Grown in a group, the dense foliage makes an excellent windbreak.

Incense Cedar is well adapted to extreme temperatures, grows well in shade or sun, tolerates poor soil, prefers slightly acidic soil, and while it will grow well in clay, this tree prefers sandy loam.

Hardy in Sunset zones 1-12 and 14-24, there are not many places where this tree cannot be grown. One thing to keep in mind: although drought tolerant, young Incense Cedars should be watered throughout the first four to five dry seasons.

Native Plant Gardening/Wildlife Habitat: Like most conifers, the primary wildlife value of the Incense Cedar is as winter shelter, cover from predators, and as a nesting site in the spring.

Young stands of Incense Cedar that make a thick grove are sometimes used as cover by deer and other larger mammals. In older trees, the deeply furrowed bark makes good habitat for crevice dwellers like bats and brown creepers.

Restoration and Mitigation Values: With adaptability to extreme conditions and temperatures, incense cedar is a natural for restoration in more difficult, dry areas, as well as damper more hospitable locations.

Calocedrus decurrens has been planted with success to control erosion in mountainous areas, and in Los Angeles County it has been successfully used on road fills, and along streams from 2,000’-6,000.’

Historical and Cultural Uses: As with the other native false-cedars of the west coast, all parts of Calocedrus decurrens were used for some purpose by indigenous peoples.

The Cahuilla of southern California used the bark to make temporary shelters, and the wood to construct permanent dwellings. Boughs were often used as brooms, lending an aromatic bonus when sweeping. Many tribes used various parts of the tree, roots and bark for example, in basketry and other weaving. The Washo people from near Lake Tahoe used small limbs of the Incense Cedar for bows. In more modern times, when the supply of eastern red cedar ran short, Incense Cedar made up almost the entire supply of pencil wood in the United States.

Edible and Medicinal Uses: The Klamath Native Americans of southern Oregon used branches and twigs in an herbal steam for sweat baths. Some tribes took a decoction of Incense Cedar leaves for stomach illness, and an infusion of leaves steam was inhaled for cold remedy by the Paiute. Dense leaflets were also used by some tribes in California to spice or flavor acorn meal.

NOTE: Please use caution when preparing or eating any parts of a plant. Identification of the species and knowledge of a plant’s toxicity are both essential before using any plant species medicinally or otherwise. Please consult with a health professional before attempting to treat any ailment.

Propagation Techniques:  Cuttings and seeds both work well for propagation of Calocedrus decurrens.

Seeds – Collect the cones from trees after they have turned from green to brown, but before they open. Then dry on a plastic sheet for several days until the cones dry and open. Shake the seeds loose from the cones, and separate the seeds from the chaff with a light fanning. Do not de-wing the seeds. Cold stratification is recommended as it generally doubles germination. In the spring sow at a depth of 0.5 cm in moist soil. Shade partially for the first year, and keep soil moist.

Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) foliage and cones taken in Grants Pass, Oregon on October 22, 2005. Photo by Walter Siegmund.

Cuttings – Incense Cedar can be propagated by cuttings in a greenhouse or cold frame. Take cuttings of same year’s growth in mid-autumn and root in a cold frame.

Common Diseases: The most common disease in Incense Cedar is a dry pocket rot that generally only affects the quality of the wood harvested from the tree, and is of negligible importance to gardeners.

Most fungi only affect very old trees, although occasionally a root fungus, Heterobasidion annosum, will cause enough damage to result in blow down.

Beetles occasionally feed on the cambium, but rarely become numerous enough to seriously damage a tree, and parasitic mistletoe will grow on Incense Cedar, but is also of negligible concern.

See Identification of False Cedars for more information.

Mature Incense Cedar 

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