Port Orford cedars (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) are confined to a very small geographic area along the Pacific Coast – from Coos Bay OR to Humbolt County CA. Small, isolated populations also occur in the high elevations of the Illinois and Klamath River drainages along the California Oregon border and near the headwaters of the Sacramento River at Mount Shasta CA. Within their restricted range these beautiful trees can be found in a variety of habitats including wet and dry soils, from sea level to over 5,000 feet in elevation.
On old, mature Port Orford Cedar trees the bark is very thick and divided by deep narrow furrows connected by diagonal ridges. The branchlets lie in one plane and droop slightly at the outer tips and give the tree a lacy appearance. The leaves are scale-like and flattened against the twigs. When mature the small Port Orford cedar cones are reddish-brown with shield-like scales. The tiny seeds have wings on both sides.
Port Orford cedars require a consistently moist climate, such as near the ocean, or must be able to tap into a shallow, year-round fresh water table. In addition these cedars need mild year-round temperatures. If the moisture and temperature requirements are met, Port Orford cedars can tolerate almost any type of soil. Temperature and moisture are believed to be the factors limiting its range.
Port Orford cedar wood has a strong gingerlike odor caused by a volatile oil. This oil renders the wood resistant to decay and insect damage, making the wood in high demand including for boatbuilding, pilings and posts and funereal caskets (particularly in the Far East). Because Port Orford cedar wood is resistant to acid it was used in storage battery separators. The light colored wood is also sought after for cabinetry. Unfortunately the demand for Port Orford cedar has depleted the limited supply and made the wood very expensive.
Although Port Orford cedars are resistant to decay and insects, a root rot caused by a fungus that was accidentally introduced into the forests through nursery stock in the 1950s is spreading throughout the tree’s range. The fungus attacks only Port Orford cedars and unless controlled kills the trees.
Although Port Orford cedars are rare and becoming even more rare, over 200 horticultural varieties are found throughout the world. Sir Charles Lawson, whom the species name honors, was a Scot who raised nursery seedlings from native seeds in the mid-1800s. These ornamentals are known as Lawson cypress and now come in a variety of showy forms. In my opinion none of the cultivated varieties can match the natural beauty of a Port Orford cedar growing in the wild.
This Port Orford cedar was photographed at South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve south of Coos Bay OR.