Incense Cedar: Tahoe’s favorite red trees.

January 19, 2015 | Tim Hauserman

The mature Incense Cedar stands tall and proud, amongst the smaller, more ubiquitous white firs and Jeffrey pines that are found at the elevation of Lake Tahoe.  It has red, deeply furrowed and ridged bark which stands out in full glory since as it ages the branches recede, and the bundles of light green needles are often found just near the top of the tree.

Cedars, grow slowly but can reach up to 180 feet in height. They can live for over 500 years, because they are drought resistant, and their thick bark protects them from smaller ground fires (the big firestorms that we have seen in recent years, however, can consume them). Frequently, on older trees you will see a huge limb growing straight out from the tree parallel to the ground, then taking a sharp turn straight up, making the tree look like it is showing off its enormous biceps.

One other tree found commonly in the Sierra Nevada has the red, furrowed bark like the cedar: the Mountain Juniper. While the juniper bark looks similar to the Cedar, there are a few easy methods to tell the difference. First, junipers hold batches of greenish-blue berries. Scrape them and take a whiff and you will smell gin. Which makes sense, since juniper berries are the source for the flavor of gin. The needles on a juniper are also a darker green then the cedars. While cedars tend to grow in deep soils with other trees, junipers prefer to live in rocky, craggy spots with little soil, where no other self-respecting tree would attempt to live. The incense cedars are taller than the junipers as well. But the easiest way to tell the difference is by figuring out your elevation. Cedars rarely grow above 6800 feet, and junipers usually grow much higher and are rarely found below 6500 feet.

The spicy fragrance and marvel of colors of sawn cedar have made it a popular choice for the construction of chests and closets. Cedar is also used as the primary source for pencils throughout the world. The wood is soft and sharpens easily and evenly. Personally, however, I think the greatest use for a cedar tree is to enjoy their beauty and power. You will find great specimens near the Vikingsholm, along the Tahoe Rim Trail near Tahoe City, and on the trails at Tahoe Cross-Country Ski Area.