Cupressaceae (cypress family) Chamaecyparis

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana Port Orford cedar

Oregon, northwestern California
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana branchlets. Alf Fengler

Known as a splendid timber tree growing close to 100 feet high on the Oregon-California border, it is, surprisingly, available in the form of ornamental cultivars that range in height down to 3 feet. The tall trees are the principal source of shingles and shakes in California. As siding it is cheaper than redwood but less durable. The closets of older campus homes are invariably lined with cedar, so as to repel clothes moths; the aromatic fragrance, which is very long-lived and probably carcinogenic, is a warning to insects.

Because of its occurrence in Japan and Taiwan, the tree’s adaptability to bonsai treatment was long ago discovered by oriental gardeners. Several other species of Chamaecyparis have contributed to the dozens of available cultivars. Chamaecyparis is closely related to the cypress (-cyparis is just a spelling variant of cypress), but differs by displaying its twigs as flattened sprays covered with tiny stem-clasping scales and by dropping its cones annually. The prefix chamae- is borrowed from an ancient Greek word chamaidrus meaning a stunted tree. The word drus taken on its own meant tree; in fact English tree and Greek drus have a common origin.

The fungus Phytophthora ramorum is killing Port Orford cedars in Oregon, a nontrivial matter given that a large tree in 2002 brought as much as $50,000. By 2002 P. ramorum had spread to Big Sur and Berkeley. Sudden oak death syndrome, not previously noted with conifers, was also reported on a redwood. The Irish potato blight reminds us of the social consequences of Phytophthora.

Ray Collett writes that the Port Orford cedar “bears foliage that is pungently fragrant and rather sourish. The wood… smells sweet, something like a rose!” (Pacific Horticulture, 67,4, 2006, p. 6.) Make your own judgement: a grove of two dozen old Port Orford cedars can be seen at 776 Dolores Street and there are several, old and new, at Kingscote Gardens, including two narrow old specimens near the pond. In Palo Alto, a specimen to the right of the front door at 1127 Hopkins Avenue can be compared to the incense cedar hedge left of the driveway, and an excellent gold-leaf variety of C. lawsoniana is at 1133 Harker Avenue on the left side.

Name derivation: Chamaecyparis – Gk. chamai (low growing) and kuparissos (cypress); lawsoniana – Charles Lawson (d. 1874), Scottish nurseryman who raised it from the original introduction in Great Britain in 1854.

About this Entry: The main text of this entry is from the book Trees of Stanford and Environs, by Ronald Bracewell, published 2005. John Rawlings added the Pac Hort quote and removed Japan as being part of the native range (an error in the book).