May Tree of the Month: Brazilian Cedarwood

Brazilian Cedarwood tree (Photo: David Gress)

The Brazilian Cedarwood is a stately medium- to large-sized deciduous tree.  It has been touted as an ideal street tree.  It is appreciated for its fast initial growth that will develop into a high spreading crown – good for traffic clearance – and that will provide comforting shade in the summer and fall.

It was first introduced into California in 1900 by Dr. Francesco Franceschi, a pioneering horticulturist, at his nursery that was located at State Street and Gutierrez Street in Santa Barbara.  The magnificent Brazilian Cedarwood trees that now grace Gutierrez Street (from Santa Barbara Street to Chapala Street) were planted in 1911 by Dr. Augustus Doremus, Santa Barbara’s first Parks Superintendent.

Brazilian Cedarwood’s broad canopy can have a spread of 30- to 40-feet that is covered with lush, pinnately compound, leaves (10- to 26-inches long).  Each leaf can have up to 12 pairs of lance-shaped leaflets (3- to 6-inches long and 1- to 2-inches wide).  Leaflets are light green when they emerge – and turn glossy dark green with age.  Leaves and twigs, when crushed, have the distinct spicy smell of garlic.

Beginning in April, densely clustered flowers emerge on panicles (10- to 20-inches-long) that develop within the foliage and near the ends of the newly formed branches.  The slightly fragrant, light yellow-green, tubular flowers (½-inch in diameter) open to reveal 5 small petals.  Due to our usually cool damp weather this time of year, these flowers tend to open up slowly through June.  Each flower is “perfect”, meaning that each bears both stamens (male flower parts) and pistils (female flower parts).  The flowers are pollinated by bees.

Brazilian Cedarwood Flowers (Photo by David Gress)

Once the flowers are pollinated, their fruit develops as hanging capsules (2½-inches long) shaped like elongated figs.  The mature capsules turn a shiny dark brown speckled with light colored raised lenticels and can persist on the tree through the whole growing season.  Each capsule has 5 valves and will split open to form a 5-pointed star, releasing large numbers of single-winged seeds for dispersal by the wind over a wide area.  The dried open seed capsules are used extensively in dry flower arrangements.

One of its most distinctive features is its hard bark; this can vary from being deeply furrowed and gray – to lightly furrowed and light brown – with interlaced flat-topped ridges.

Brazilian Cedarwood Bark (Photo by David Gress)

The Brazilian Cedarwood is endemic to tropical forests from Costa Rica to northern Argentina, below 2,000 feet elevation, where it can grow to over 100-feet tall.  Once a common tree in its native range, it has sadly become endangered, due to over-harvesting for its high-quality timber that has been used for construction, furniture, and cabinetry, in lieu of even-rarer mahogany.  It has been processed in traditional medicine for the treatment of ulcers, sores, and infections.

In addition to its common name, “Brazilian Cedarwood”, it also has the common names “Argentine Cedar” and “Cedro” in its native area.   It is in the Mahogany plant family (Miliaceae).  Its botanical name is Cedrela fissilis.  The genus name, Cedrela, is derived from the Latin word, “cedrus”, meaning “cedar” – referring to the look and cedar-like smell of its wood.  The specific epithet, fissilis, is Latin, meaning “easily split” – referring to the seed capsules that split open widely.

Brazilian Cedarwood grows best in full sun but can do well in partial shade.  It prefers a deep, well-drained but moist, loamy soil, though it can tolerate both sandy and clay soils.  Surprisingly, it is quite drought-tolerant and grows very well in our Mediterranean climate – with older trees able to thrive on our normal rainfall alone. To become established, young trees will require irrigation through the dry seasons for several years.  It grows fast when young – slowing considerably with age.  In our area, it can reach 50 feet tall at maturity.

It is easily propagated using fresh seeds.  Seeds that are sown in a lightly covered potting mix and kept moist, will germinate in 12 to 18 days and will be ready for potting up in 2 to 4 months.

Brazilian Cedarwood Seed Capsules (Photo by David Gress)

Brazilian Cedarwood is a low-maintenance, sustainable tree, quite suitable for our urban environment.  Its deep roots do not disturb surrounding paving or hardscaping.  It is generally pest- and disease-free.  It requires only occasional pruning.  In large landscapes, on streets, in private gardens, and in public parks, it makes a picturesque specimen tree for a dramatic effect, even when leafless.  For these reasons, more young trees are being planted about town.

Brazilian Cedarwood Seed Capsules (Photo: David Gress)

Mature Brazilian Cedarwoods, as street trees, can be seen in several places:  on West Gutierrez Street (between Chapala Street and Santa Barbara Street); on the 100 block of East Guiterrez; and, in the 900 block of West Valerio Street.  Young trees can be seen, as street trees, on the east side of the 1300 block of Chapala Street adjacent to the Santa Barbara Public Market.

Tree-of-the-Month articles are sponsored by Santa Barbara Beautiful, whose many missions include the increase of public awareness and appreciation of Santa Barbara’s many outstanding trees and, in a long-time partnership with the City Parks & Recreation Department, the funding and planting of trees along the City’s streets.

Those who wish to honor a special someone can do so with an attractive commemorative marker that will be installed at the base of an existing street tree in the City of Santa Barbara.  Because Santa Barbara Beautiful has participated in the planting to date of over 13,000 street trees, there are plenty of trees from which to choose!  Application forms are available on the Santa Barbara Beautiful website,

Article and Photos by David Gress

David Gress

Written by David Gress

David Gress writes the monthly Tree-of-the-Month articles, sponsored by Santa Barbara Beautiful, whose many missions include the increase of public awareness and appreciation of Santa Barbara’s many outstanding trees and, in a long-time partnership with the City Parks & Recreation Department, the funding and planting of trees along the City’s streets.

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