What could be more Bermudian than Bermuda cedar? This sturdy, aromatic tree formed a cornerstone of early British settlement in the islands. When English settlers came to Bermuda in the 1600s they found cedar trees growing abundantly.Soon they put this majestic wood to use, building houses and churches and even a cedar prison in St. George’s. In fact, cedar was a part of the settlers’ lives from birth to death. Mothers rocked their babies in cedar cradles and families used the wood to make coffins.
Juniperus bermudiana is the name of this indigenous tree. It has an exotic aroma, considered to be heavier and sweeter than other North American varieties, and the wood is harder and darker in color. What’s more, Bermuda cedar has been found to repel moths and fleas and to prevent mildew and rot. As such, Bermudians long have used it to line closets and drawers.
Four centuries ago, Bermuda cedars grew throughout the islands, about 500 trees to an acre,according to some reports. Much of the wood went into building ships, one of Bermuda’s earliest industries. In those days, supply seemed unlimited and use of cedar went unchecked. Not only was Bermuda cedar used locally, it was exported to England for furniture and ships. In Bermuda homes, settlers burned cedar as cooking fuel. They also used it to cure toothaches and coughs (in the form of cedar berry syrup), and they boiled cedar brush in water to break fevers.
Eventually it became apparent that Bermuda would have to act to protect its valuable trees. In1627, authorities enacted legislation to restrict export of cedar for shipbuilding. And from 1693to1878, the legislature passed 16 acts to protect cedar by restricting its use. But in 1944 Bermuda cedars suffered a tragedy that no one foresaw, when oyster shell scale, a form of fungus,attacked the trees. A year later, another fungus, juniper scale, struck. Ten years later, 90 percent of Bermuda cedars were dead.
During the 1950s, as many as 75,000 dead cedars were cut down as authorities launched reforestation programs. Today old, well-cured cedar logs are rare, used for custom-designed and antique-reproduction furniture, entrance doors, window frames and beams for cathedral ceilings.
Because the wood is expensive, you’ll find it mostly in wealthier homes. In fact, the aroma of Bermuda cedar is considered to be the smell of affluence, a status symbol in grand Bermuda homes.