Bermuda Cedar

Description and biology

When Europeans discovered the island of Bermuda in 1609, the landscape was dominated by Bermuda cedar trees (also known as Bermuda juniper). The species grew abundantly throughout the islands, with an estimated 500 trees to an acre in the many areas where it flourished.

The large trees were useful as windbreaks, and protected early settlers from the sun and sea as well. They quickly became an essential part of the colonists’ existence.

In good conditions, Bermuda cedars grow to about 50 feet (15 meters) tall, with a trunk measuring about 24 inches (0.6 meter) in diameter.

However, where the trees are exposed to high winds or grow in scarce soil, they are smaller. They have a thin red bark that grows in narrow strips and weathers to a gray color. The foliage is dark and thick, with small, leafy branchlets.

The leaves are like scales, overlapping each other. The trees produce dark blue seed cone, and dark purple berries. Bermuda cedars have a strong, sweet scent. The wood repels moths and fleas and prevents mildew and rot.

Habitat and current distribution

Bermuda cedar is endemic (native to and only occurring in) Bermuda Island. It thrives in temperate lowlands and grows well on hillsides with limestone–based soils.

A few stands of Bermuda cedar currently remain on the island of Bermuda, for the most part within its 12 nature reserves, and particularly within the 25–acre Paget Marsh Nature Reserve. Stands have also been planted on Nonsuch Island off the eastern coast of Bermuda.

History and conservation measures

In the early 1600s, colonists in Bermuda used the native cedar for building houses and ships; making furniture, medicine, and beer and wine; and as fuel.

Soon after the first settlers arrived on the island, the forests showed signs of overexploitation, and early measures were taken to protect these trees. In 1627, export of cedar for shipbuilding was restricted. By 1878, 16 more acts to protect the species had been passed.

As settlers from all over the globe arrived on Bermuda, foreign species were introduced to the islands. Starting in 1943, the accidental introduction of two scale insects (the oyster shell scale and the juniper scale, both in the form of fungus), devastated the Bermuda cedars.

Within a period of ten years, 90 percent of the trees had been killed. An estimated three and a half million trees were dead due to the infestation of these insects. A few stands in remote areas survived.

The government of Bermuda has always been a leader in conservation efforts. In 1949, the Bermuda Board of Agriculture established its General Reafforestation Scheme, removing many of the dead cedar trees and replanting the cleared areas.

The measures taken by the government have helped in some recovery of the species in the wild, and the Bermuda cedar population is now at about 10 percent of its population before the insect infestation.

But the human population of the island has grown and the tourist trade has caused extensive development. There are only small, isolated areas of natural habitat for the once dominant tree, and there are many newly introduced species with which the Bermuda cedar must compete.