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BOTANICAL ENCOUNTERS: Atlas Cedar

Photos and text by Ida K. Rigby, for Let’s Talk Plants! April 2024.



Atlas Cedar


The Atlas cedar, Cedrus atlantica, forests of Morocco are perhaps best known for being the home to the Barbary macaque.



I visited the cedars and macaques in 2013 in the Ifrane National Park near Fes. There are hiking trails, but we stayed mostly in the picnic area, intrigued as we were by the antics of the macaques hungry for snacks.



Higher in the mountains the Atlas cedar forests are still home to a few Maghreb leopards, Barbary macaques, servals, Cuvier’s gazelle and the lesser kestrel. (en.unesco.org) I was with a nature tour operator’s group scouting a proposed nature tour of Morocco. We were accompanied by a Moroccan conservationist who showed us what he could, but most of the wildlife had been hunted, including birds killed by falconers from other countries. The Barbary macaques in the green oaks, Quercus rotundifolia, …




… were our wildlife sighting in addition to some wetland birds. The Atlas cedar, an evergreen conifer, lives in pure…



… or mixed forests…  



… (with oaks and maritime pine) from 3800 to 7000 feet in the Rif and Atlas Mountains of Morocco and in a smaller area in Algeria. According to the Gymnosperm Data Base (conifers.org) fossil evidence shows that the eastern and western Atlas cedars diverged some 23 million years ago. The western Atlas cedar survived the Late Glacial Maximum in at least three distinct refugia along the Mediterranean coast and in the Middle Atlas. From 1940 to 1982 the Atlas cedar area declined 75% and the tree moved from being designated of “Least Concern” in l998 to “Threatened” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List (iucn.org). In 2016 UNESCO established the Atlas Cedar Biosphere Reserve, which has 75% of the Atlas cedar population (en.unesco.org). Threats are the ones we are accustomed to worldwide: Climate change induced fires and encroaching human populations. As we climbed from up to Ifrane National Park we passed through valleys of cherry and apricot orchards, which have replaced the Berbers’ formerly semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyle. The UN site points out how these modern modes of irrigated agriculture, plus tourism, have stressed the scarce water reserves, which come from high in the Atlas Mountains. According to the UN, traditional pastoral life was water efficient although in some areas the cedars were threatened by grazing and only senescent forests remain. The Atlas cedar itself is a large tree, 60 to 100 feet with massive trunks and sturdy branches.



Individual trees bear both pollen and seed cones. They like rocky, calcareous soil and a wet winter with a snow blanket on the ground. It is a useful timber tree, with fragrant durable wood for construction, carpentry, furniture, veneers, joinery and clothing storage trunks (conifers.org). Atlas cedar wood oil is used as a fragrance and a medication for respiratory illnesses. When the German state of Bavaria recognized that local tree species could not adapt to the speed of climate change, the federal government began looking to replace the increasingly unstable spruce and pine stands. In 2015 the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture launched “CorCed”. The program sought a drought- and frost-tolerant species that might integrate into the German forests. (waldwissen.net) German and Bavarian authorities looked back to an effort in mid-l9th century (1862) France to reforest areas with seeds from the Algerian stands of the Atlas cedar. Bavaria is sourcing seeds from Morocco.


The state of New Mexico, in its search for trees that can accommodate to climate change, declared a day in May of 2023 as Atlas Cedar Day, although they had in mind a more generally domesticated idea of cedars, emphasizing the popular Blue Atlas Cedar.


 

Ida Rigby is a past SDHS Board member and Garden Tour Coordinator. She has gardened in Poway since l992 and emphasizes plants from the northern and southern Mediterranean latitudes.

Her garden received the San Diego Home/Garden Magazine Best Homeowner Design and Grand Prize in their Garden of the Year contest in l998. Her travels focus on natural history.

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