Calocedrus decurrens


Incense-cedar at about 5000 feet elevation, along South Fork Kings River east of Roads End, Kings Canyon National Park, with white fir on the left.

Incense-cedar is a large tree, abundant on the west slope of the Sierra at about 3000–7000 feet, and common at other mid-elevation locations in California, Oregon, and into Baja California Norte. It usually does not grow in pure stands, but is found with white fir, sugar pine, ponderosa pine, giant sequoia, and others.

Young trees are pyramidal; old trees can grow to 140 feet tall, with much of the lower trunk bare, and sometimes having multiple, large branches jutting out at right angles to the trunk, then growing upward, parallel to the trunk. While there are superficial resemblances to giant sequoia—reddish bark, buttressed base, fire scars on old trees—giant sequoia grows almost twice as tall.

Incense-cedar grows on wide variety of soils, and tolerates hot, dry sites with poor soils, but the largest specimens tend to occur on sites with more water. Incense-cedar is shade tolerant, and can reproduce in litter on the forest floor. Older trees are tolerant of moderate fire due to thick, fibrous bark.  

Incense-cedar is long-lived, possibly to 900 years, though evidently documentation is lacking. Again, like giant sequoia, incense cedar has tannins and chemistry which resists decay and insect pests.

Fun facts: Incense-cedar sheds pollen midwinter, blanketing snow with yellow until the next snow. It is unrivaled for making pencils, remember pencils?

Dense, bright green flattened sprays of foliage are held somewhat vertically, and the small, scale-like leaves are appressed on the twigs. Seed cones are unique, resembling a one inch duck bill.

Reddish bark of incense-cedar

Huge incense-cedar in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

In Discovering Sierra Trees, Arno notes that seedlings of incense-cedar grow quite slowly. Indeed! Expecting that it would be rootbound, this was transplanted to a larger pot, but we discovered it still had plenty of room in the small pot.