Cedar Tree Identification

By George Lawrence
Looking up the trunk of a white cedar tree.

Identifying a cedar tree can be a little tricky: there are many different types of cedar trees. However, they do have similar characteristics running through each species. Learning the similarities and differences between a few of these species will help you identify and narrow down a tree as a "cedar" tree. Look at the bark, height, needles, cones and flowers when you come across a tree you suspect to be a cedar tree.

Tree Height

A distinct red cedar with a long trunk grows in the woods.

Cedar trees are typically at least forty feet tall at full height. Some species of this tree can grow as tall as 85 feet. The Atlantic White Cedar ranges in height from 40 to 85 feet while the Eastern Red Cedar ranges only from around 40 feet to 60 feet. The Northern White Cedar falls in the middle with a height range of 40 to 70 feet. A good rule of thumb when determining height is to use yourself as a measuring stick and estimate the height of a tree based on how many of you it would take to reach the top. If you are six feet even and you come across a relatively tall tree, you may be able to identify it as a cedar if it would take at least six of you to reach the top of the tree (around forty feet).

Twigs and Bark

A close-up of the bark of a cedar tree.

The twigs and bark of cedar trees are fairly similar throughout the different species. Typically, the twigs are covered in green or brown scales. Green scales are typical in younger trees; brown scales are typical in older trees. The bark of cedar trees is thin and fibrous. It typically peels off in thin strips. Most cedar trees have brownish to reddish bark. The bark of the Northern White Cedar turns gray with age; the Atlantic White Cedar and the Eastern Red Cedar have reddish-brown bark.

Flowers

A close-up of yellow cedar tree flowers and pollen.

The flowers of a cedar tree vary from species to species and according to gender. Typically, a male cedar tree will have ruddy or brown colored flowers. For instance, the male Atlantic White Cedar can be identified from its red to yellow flowers whereas the male Northern White Cedar has green flowers tipped with brown. Female cedar trees typically have smaller, greener flowers; some (such as the Eastern Red Cedar) may even have blue flowers.

Cones

A close-up of a cedar cone.

Cedar trees have cones. The cones vary from species to species and can help you identify the specific species of cedar tree. In the Atlantic White Cedar, the cones are a waxy blue or purple color that turns red or brown in the fall. An Eastern Red Cedar has cones only on the female tree. Its cones are green when young and blue when ripe; they look like little waxy berries. The Northern White Cedar's cones are leathery red or brown and are thinner and longer than the cones of the other two species.

Needles

A close-up of cedar branches.

The needles of cedar trees are scaly and they tend to overlap each other. Often, you can smell the cedar scent coming from the needles; sometimes the fragrance is produced when the needles are crushed together. Cedar needles are not like pine needles (which are longer and almost needle-like). Instead, the needles on a cedar tree are soft and almost fern-like.

About the Author

Based in Traverse City, Mich., George Lawrence has been writing professionally since 2009. His work primarily appears on various websites. An avid outdoorsman, Lawrence holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in both criminal justice and English from Michigan State University, as well as a Juris Doctor from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, where he graduated with honors.