Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Garden of the Forest: Old and New Cedars of Lebanon

Among the most famous trees of the Old World, the Cedars of Lebanon were especially sought after for their sturdiness by King Solomon when he built a new high temple in Jerusalem. Altogether cedars of Lebanon have been used for building by 15 world cultures, our guide told us, when we visited the Cedar Preserve in the Qadisha Valley region of northern Lebanon, known officially as the Forest of the Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab). More than any other variety of cedar.
            There are two kinds of cedar trees. The ‘candle’ cedars, which grow tall and straight like candles, and ‘table’ cedars, which spread their branches out to both sides like a table. The difference is the candle cedars are competing with surrounding trees for sunlight. The cedars uncrowded by other trees have room to let their branches stretch out.
            Lebanese cedar grows very slowly. The new ones planted by the national initiative to restore the cedars to the country’s deforested mountain areas are about a foot and half tall after ten years. But they also live a very long time. Our guide, trained by the preservation initiative, pointed out a tree to us that has been growing in its mountain home for some 1,800 years, beginning before the birth of Alexander the Great. (Though not before the early days of the Maronite Christian church. We saw a dead cedar in which one branch had been sculpted to resemble the crucified Christ). The age is determined by an unintrusive cell sampling technique. All the old trees in the preserve are numbered, their health monitored, and their information kept on file – they are trees with, botanically speaking, medical records.
            The trees reproduce by seeds protected by seed covers resembling pine cones. They take three years to mature, and you can chart their progress easily because they pass through different color stages from green to light beige to a much darker pine cone-color as they mature. We saw tiny seedlings beginning life among the much of the protected forest floor.
We followed our guide from the top of the preserve down a carefully maintained path of switchbacks, admiring old and highly individualized cedars, until our path crossed a roadway, where we exited for lunch. As we left the outdoor restaurant, we could see ranks of young trees digging their roots into the flanks of the Mount Lebanon range.