Native to Asia and Africa, the cedar tree was an integral part of ancient civilizations and was used to build homes, temples and ships. Today, cedar trees are found around the world and their wood, berries and oil serve a wide range of uses. In the United States, they are primarily ornamental.
Two of the three true cedars, the Mount Atlas and Lebanon cedars, are native to the Middle East and North Africa. It's believed that the Bible's King Solomon used cedar trees from Lebanon to build his Great Temple and that Alexander the Great used cedar trees to build ships for his navy. The ancient Egyptians also used oil from cedar trees as part of the process of mummification.
Cedar trees are part of the pine tree family and have thick clumps of long, green needles and thick reddish-brown bark. There are more than a half-dozen types of cedar trees. The original "true cedars," which also include the Deodar cedar, grow in a range of climates stretching from Africa to the Himalayan Mountains. The "false cedars" cultivated by growers include the eastern red cedar, western red cedar, northern white cedar and the oriental arborvitae.
Although most cedar trees grow to heights of 30 or 40 feet, some, such as the western red cedar found in the Pacific Northwest, can grow up to 100 feet tall. The northern white cedar thrives in colder, drier regions and is found in the northeastern United States and Canada.
Hardy cedar wood is still used today for buildings and fencing. Varieties of cedar with scented wood are used to make cedar chests to store clothing, since the oil in the wood is effective in repelling moths. Western red cedar trees are used to make pencils, and the berries of eastern white cedar trees are used to flavor some varieties of gin. Cedar oil is also used to keep fleas and ticks off dogs and flies away from horses.
Cedar trees have long been symbols of healing, cleansing and protection. Much of that symbolism derives from the Lebanon cedar and the use of its cedar oil to repel insects and as an aromatic to clear away foul odors. The cedar tree is the national tree of both the Lebanese Republic and Pakistan. The name for the Deodar cedar native to Pakistan and India is derived from the Sanskrit word "devdar," which means "timber of the gods."