The role of Bermuda’s endemic tree in our earliest economies and how it was saved from extinction.
Ecology of the Plant
The ecology of the Bermuda cedar is nothing to sniff at; it was perfectly suited to the biological niche presented by Bermuda with its evolutionary adaptations. The cedar has widely spreading roots, enabling it to anchor itself in the ground against hurricane winds. It is also resistant to salt spray, making it an ideal island inhabitant.
The Early Significance of Cedars
For centuries the Bermuda cedar played a huge part in our history. It was the tree of choice for hanging the church bell. Its berries were fermented to make alcohol. But most importantly, its wood was used to craft our first houses, our forts, and during the age of sail, our sloops and schooners. Indeed, such was the demand for our cedar, by the 1680s the forests were almost entirely decimated. Bermudians then began to reserve land for woodland, planting cedars instead of tobacco, while at the same time passing conservation laws to prevent the destruction of young trees.
Owning Cedars Was Once a Sign of Financial Success
As John Crevecoeur pointed out when he visited in 1784: “The cultivation of red cedar is their principal interest and their great wealth. A girl’s fortune is counted by the number of cedars—that of my hostess had been two thousand, seven hundred.” By the eighteenth century, houses were made of stone, but cedar was still used for window frames, doors and shutters. It was also used by skilled cabinet makers to create furniture of all kinds though perhaps the most iconic is the Bermuda cedar chest useful for storing linens and clothes. Many Bermudian families own cedar chests passed down to them through the generations.
How They Multiply
Bermuda cedars are an example of a plant with separate male and female individuals. Males carry the pollen, which can be seen in small, yellow, cone-like flowers on the tips of the cedar’s needles. Female trees become unmistakable when they begin to grow the characteristic blue-purple berries eight months after pollination.
Beginning of the Blight
In the 1940s, the endemic cedar counted for well over 90 percent of all the trees on the island. They were planted so thickly that the Department of Agriculture calculated there were an average of 300 cedars on every one of Bermuda’s 13,000 acres, to the exclusion of almost every other tree and hedge. But disaster struck on August 27, 1945, at Chelston in Paget. One cedar tree had died; five more looked unhealthy. Experts had inspected them. Maybe it was the juniper midge, some said. Maybe the cedar hopper. Bur nobody was sure. Then, that summer, ten days after the Japanese had surrendered and the Second World War had ended, Bill Evans and C.A. Baker from the Department of Agriculture went to check the same trees again. This time they saw them: little white pinpricks on the green branches. With a magnifying glass they could see each scale’s pale yellow centre. It looked like a miniature fried egg. Beneath the scale was a tiny, formless insect with a proboscis that drilled right into the cedar itself. Juniper scale. Within three years it would infect every cedar in Bermuda. In less than a decade, it would kill almost every one of them.
Saving the Cedars
The first reaction was to spray. That had worked in the past. A scale problem on cedars on Hinson’s Island in the 1930s, for example, had been controlled with a sulfur-lime spray. But by the end of 1946, the Board of Agriculture realised that spraying simply wasn’t working. It asked the House of Assembly for £13,800 to fight the scale and to bring in a foreign expert, and in February 1947, Dr W.R. Thompson, the director of the Commonwealth Bureau of Biological Control, arrived from Canada.
Thompson determined that if the scale bugs were going to be controlled, it would have to be with predators and parasites, by beetles which would eat the scale and by wasps whose larvae would destroy it. Spraying, he warned, should be abandoned immediately. It was not killing the scale, but it would certainly kill the parasites and predators that were the only hope. Besides, there were millions of cedars on the densely forested island. Spray could never cover it all. By May, Thompson had imported 19,500 insects of sixteen different species, of which 14,500 had been liberated among the cedars. But it didn’t work. The advance of the juniper scale might have been slowed somewhat, but it was never halted. Hills that were once green were barren and grey. Buildings that had once nestled in cedar forests were exposed. The backs of buildings and rubbish dumps, once hidden, were there for all to see.
Cedar skeletons were not good for tourism. In 1952, a law was passed giving the Department of Agriculture the right to chop down trees on private property within 50 feet of roads—increased three years later to 100 feet—and on golf courses and the islands of Hamilton Harbour. Even in the late 1950s, government was felling more than 13,000 dead cedars a year, and untold others were being chopped down on private property. At least 90 percent of the trees were gone, and most of those that remained were in the process of dying. In 1959, a survey found juniper scale on every living cedar; on one tree, 5,000 scales were found on a three-inch twig. In 1971, government conservation officer David Wingate estimated that only one percent of the cedars had survived.
In 1946, the Department of Agriculture estimated that there was an average of 300 cedars on every acre in Bermuda. If that estimate was accurate, 3.9 million trees perished. Even if the original estimate was overblown, however, it is hard to imagine that the toll was anything less than a million trees, killed in less than a decade.
Bermuda’s Oldest Cedar Furniture
The first version of St. Peter’s—a small wooden church probably consisting of cedar log walls and lime plaster—was blown down in a strong gale in 1619. A more substantial timber-framed replacement was built but later destroyed in a hurricane in 1712. Rather than repairing the damage, it was decided to rebuild the church in stone. The original Communion table and altar rails from 1612 and the 1660 cedar pulpit were salvaged and are still in use today.
Bermuda’s cedar trees were key to Bermuda’s successful maritime industry. The wood was long-lasting, and its high content of bitter resin protected it from organisms such as teredo worm. Also, cedar needed no seasoning; it could be used for shipbuilding while still green, unlike oak, which had to be seasoned for ten years.
How to Plant a Cedar Tree
- Choose a spot in your garden spacious enough for your cedar to grow to its full height—up to 50 feet. Bermuda cedars don’t thrive when replanted.
- Dig a hole at least 3-feet across and 10-inches deep in well-drained soil.
- Plant the tree and add compost or manure to the hole, making sure you don’t damage the roots. Water until well established.
If planting from seed:
- Collect ripe cedar berries and rub with sandpaper to break the seed coat.
- Loosely cover seeds with potting mix. Water regularly.
- Germination takes between six weeks to six months.