The Cederberg* was named after the Clanwilliam cedar, which used
to be a prominent feature of the Cederberg but which today is a
rare sight. They are critically endangered and are on the brink
of extinction after decades of unsustainable harvesting for their
beautiful, long-lasting, fragrant timber, and from too frequent
Distribution and description
Clanwilliam cedar is confined to an approximately 250 km2 area in
the Cederberg Mountains, about 240 km north of Cape Town. They occur
singly or in scattered groups on rocky outcrops and mountain tops
at altitudes from 800 to 1 980 m. In former times the whole mountain
chain was studded with these trees, but by 1883 nearly all accessible
trees of commercial value had been felled. The Clanwilliam cedars
today are usually 5-7 m tall, but in protected, inaccessible places,
specimens of up to 20 m with a trunk of up to 2 m. in diameter can
be found - although many of them were killed in the fire of 1989.
But even these large specimens are dwarfs compared to the past giants
that must have been at least double the girth of any of those now
standing. There is a report of a tree cut down in 1836 having a
girth of 36 feet (11 m).
Young trees have a conical crown, old trees have massive gnarled
trunks and spreading branches. The bark is reddish grey, thin and
fibrous, flaking in scale-like plates. Juvenile leaves are narrow
and needle-like, 20 x 2 mm and are spirally arranged. Adult leaves
are small, scale-like, up to 4 mm long, and lie flat along the branches
in pairs. Both forms are sometimes present on a young tree.
and female cones are borne on the same plant. Male cones are very
small, up to 2 mm long and are produced in autumn. Female cones
are dark brown, almost spherical, up to 25 mm in diameter, with
4 woody, rough, warty scales. They develop in autumn, and remain
on the tree for almost 3 years before the seeds are released during
late summer. As a result, they can be found in various stages of
development on the tree, all year round. Seeds are black-brown,
ovoid with a narrow wing.
Fire is an integral part of the cedar life cycle. The Clanwilliam
cedar is highly inflammable, the resin in the bark causes the tree
to burst into flame relatively easily and the trees burn rapidly
and can be killed even by quick, light, veld fires. They are slow
growing, so that it may be 30 years or more before a tree produces
significant amounts of seed.
seeds do not have large wings and as a result do not fall very far
from the parent. If a tree or a group is killed by a fire they will
regenerate from seed, in fact germination after a fire is usually
very good. If that crop of saplings is killed before they have produced
seed, then that group is effectively wiped out.
It must also be remembered that the Cederberg is in the winter
rainfall area of South Africa, a region characterized by hot, dry
summers and mild, wet winters. Seedlings germinate in autumn/winter
and must grow to a size large enough to be able to survive the following
hot, dry summer. Those that germinate too late will not be large
enough to survive the summer. Therefore, not only frequency of fires
but also timing of fires will affect cedar regeneration. Fires in
winter or spring leave seeds at the mercy of high soil temperatures,
disease and predation by rodents for the entire summer, leaving
few viable seeds to germinate in the autumn. Fires are best timed
in late summer just before the onset of the autumn and winter rains.
trees that survived the axe and fires are usually in rocky, inaccessible
places and are estimated to be able to live for up to 400 years.
In the old days, only those 200 years or older were selected for
felling. It is probable that the cedars did not evolve in a fire-prone
environment, but have had to adapt to one rather late in their evolutionary
life. Management of the Cederberg has to balance the need for fires
with the need to conserve existing adult cedars.
Derivation of the name
The genus Widdringtonia was named after Edward Widdrington,
a Royal Navy captain and a conifer botanist of the late 1700s and
early 1800s, who published a book on European pines. The species
name cedarbergensis means 'of the Cederberg'. There are three
species of Widdringtonia, W. nodiflora (= W. cupressoides
and W. dracomontana) the mountain cedar, W. schwarzii
the Willowmore cedar and W. cedarbergensis (= W. juniperoides).
They are easy to tell apart in the wild as they are geographically
separated: W. schwarzii is being restricted to Baviaanskloof
and the Kouga Mountains in the Willowmore District which is 560
km west of the Cederberg, and W. nodiflora occurs from Table
Mountain in Western Cape eastwards and northwards through Eastern
Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga to Limpopo [Northern Province]
and further northwards into tropical Africa. They are not so easy
to identify in the Garden, but possible: W. nodiflora female
cones are smooth, wrinkled or slightly warty, whereas the other
two are conspicuously rough and warty. W. schwarzii seed
has a conspicuous wing, whereas that of W. cedarbergensis
is smaller. W. nodiflora is a variable species that extends
into tropical Africa. The Mlanje cedar of Malawi, W. whytei
is considered to be a variant of W. nodiflora.
Widdringtonias are members of the cypress family, which is very
poorly represented in South Africa, in fact this is the only genus
out of 16 in the whole family that occurs in South Africa. Its fragmented
distribution has given rise to the theory that they are the last
remnants of a vegetation that once, in some remote period, covered
a far larger and more connected area. Fossil wood has been found
The wood is beautiful, light yellow to whitish, resinous and fragrant,
and exceedingly durable. It works well, takes a fine polish and
is borer-proof. The pews, doors and carved altar in the Anglican
Church and the furnishings in the Courthouse in Clanwilliam are
both made of Clanwilliam cedar. It was also popular for shipbuilding
and was used for almost all the woodwork needed by the early settlers
in the Clanwilliam area and makes splendid furniture. It was once
sold by the wagonload for fence poles and it has been claimed that
the cedar posts had not decayed by more than the thickness of a
sheet of paper after 30 years in the ground, and were still immovable
100 years later. In 1879 the telegraph line between Piketberg and
Calvinia, 289 km apart, was laid on over 7000 cedar poles.
A clear, hard gum yielded by the cones and branches was once used
medicinally in the form of fumigations in the treatment of gout,
rheumatism or oedematous swellings. It was also used for making
plasters and as a varnish.
living memory, the Cederberg has been used either for grazing, which
also entailed patch burning, or the forests were felled and the
timber sold by local inhabitants. Although noted during the early
1800s that the trees would soon be depleted if harvesting continued
unchecked, it was only in 1876 that a ranger was appointed to exercise
control, yet overexploitation continued. In 1897 part of the Cederberg
was declared a demarcated forest and plantations of fast-growing
trees were planted to prevent harvesting of the cedars. Plantations
of the cedars were established at higher altitudes, but this project
was abandoned by 1916 as their growth is too slow to be commercially
viable. Today the Cederberg enjoys maximum protection, and harvesting
of the cedars has been banned for the last 100 years, but the natural
population was so reduced, plus there is still the threat of too-frequent
fires and it is appears that there is an increase in seed predation,
so that its recovery by natural regeneration seems nearly impossible.
In 1987 approximately 5 250 ha was set aside in the ca 72 000 ha
Cederberg Wilderness Area as a Cedar Reserve, with two main objectives:
1) to prevent deaths of adult trees by implementing a low intensity
burning programme, and 2) to increase the number of juvenile plants
by re-introducing nursery-grown seedlings. Thousands of seedlings
were planted every year, but this programme unfortunately came to
a halt in 2000. The Botanical Society was instrumental in creating
the Cederberg Interest Group in 2001 and with funds from Fauna and
Flora International, a new cedar nursery could be established and
the planting programme continued. This programme is a partnership
between the Botanical Society of South Africa, the Western Cape
Nature Conservation Board and the local community. See the weblinks
below for more information on the Cederberg Wilderness Area and
Growing Widdringtonia cedarbergensis
The Clanwilliam cedar is propagated from seed sown in autumn, in
well-drained, sandy soil. Germination takes 3-4 weeks and seedlings
can be transplanted as soon as they are large enough to handle.
The seed germinates relatively well, and will benefit from treatment
with Instant Smoke Plus Seed Primer. Initial growth is good, and
saplings are best grown on in semi-shade. The Clanwilliam cedar
is susceptible to the root fungus Phytophthora cinnamomi,
so use sterile soil and keep root disturbance to a minimum. Also,
do not allow the saplings to dry out, adult trees may be drought
tolerant but young trees in containers will not survive a total
Established trees are drought tolerant, and are frost hardy in
South Africa but are probably not hardy to prolonged cold at temperatures
below -5°C/20°F. The Clanwilliam cedar is an ornamental
conifer suitable for most gardens, it is also a good choice for
the fynbos garden, and is an interesting bonsai subject. It makes
a good indigenous Christmas tree subject in a large tub or half
Because they are resinous and burst into flame relatively easily,
this is not a good tree to plant near the house if you live in a
fire-prone area, nor to plant near your barbecue (braai) area.
* Cederberg, not Cedarberg, is the spelling approved by the National
Place Names Commission in 1981.
- Coates Palgrave, K. 1977. Trees of southern Africa, edn
1. Struik, Cape Town, Johannesburg.
- Manders, P.T., Botha, S.A., Bond, W.J. & Meadows, M.E. 1990.
The enigmatic Clanwilliam cedar. Veld & Flora 76: 8-11.
- Palmer, E. & Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of southern Africa.
Balkema, Cape Town.
- Smith, C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs
of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35.
- Van Rooyen, G. & Steyn, H. 1999. Cederberg, Clanwilliam
and Biedouw Valley. South African Wild Flower Guide 10.
Botanical Society of South Africa, Cape Town.
Cedar web links:
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden