How to Tell the Difference Between Cedars and Junipers

cedars vs juniper tree illustration

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

Cedars and junipers are both evergreen coniferous trees belonging to the plant order Pinales. They have many traits in common and are easily confused, in part because some trees commonly referred to as cedars are actually junipers. To clear the confusion, it helps to take a closer look at the defining qualities of each tree.

Cedar is the common name for a variety of trees, including both "true" cedars (those belonging to the genus Cedrus) and "false" or "New World" cedars, which include a number of different trees from separate but similar genera.

Junipers are trees belonging to the genus Juniperus. Some of these trees, such as the Bermuda cedar (Juniperus bermudiana), are commonly referred to as cedars despite being junipers.

Characteristics of Cedars

Close-up of pine cones on an Atlas cedar tree

Eve Livesey / Getty Images

Cedars are evergreen coniferous trees found throughout the world. They are usually tall and often feature fanlike foliage, small cones, or tiny pink flowers. The whole Cedrus genus contains just four "true cedar" species: Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica), Cyprus cedar (Cedrus brevifolia), deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara), and Lebanon cedar (Cedrus libani).

The major cedars of North America—including the Atlantic white cedar, northern white cedar, giant sequoia, and western red cedar—all have flat, scalelike leaves and stringy bark. They grow in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, and along the Atlantic coast.

Other notable species in the world include the Japanese red-cedar (aka "Sugi"), originally cultivated in China and frequently used to produce strong, weather- and insect-resistant timber for building furniture and houses. The Mexican white cedar and Australian red cedar are also used to produce durable timber.

The Lebanon cedar—one of the true cedars—is mentioned numerous times in the Bible. It was supposedly used in the construction of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.

True Cedars vs. False Cedars

Old growth cedar forest in Lebanon

Joel Carillet / Getty Images

An important distinction needs to be made between "true" and "false" cedars. True cedars are members of the genus Cedrus and include species such as the Lebanon cedar, Atlas cedar, and Cyprus cedar. They are found in the Himalayas and the Mediterranean region and are often grown in parks and gardens. All true cedars are members of the pine family (Pinaceae).

False cedars, sometimes known as "New World" cedars, are found in North America. They are members of the genera CalocedrusThuja, and Chamaecyparis, all of which are part of the Cypress family (Cupressaceae). Some believe that these trees came to be called cedars because of their aromatic wood, which resembles that of true cedars.

Characteristics of Junipers

Blueberries on a juniper bush

ChamilleWhite / Getty Images

Junipers, like cedars, are also evergreen coniferous plants; however, though they can also grow as trees, they are most commonly shrubs. Junipers often feature berrylike, bluish, glaucous, bloomy cones on the tips of their shoots. Some also have spiny needle-like leaves. There are thought to be between 50 and 67 species of junipers distributed widely throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Juniper trees, when they are fully grown, often resemble narrow columns. One of the best examples of this is Juniperus virginiana, or the eastern red-cedar, one of the several "cedars" that are actually junipers. It is the most common juniper in eastern North America. The most common juniper in western North America is the Rocky Mountain juniper.

All junipers produce small seed cones that resemble berries. The seed cones of the common juniper are sold as juniper berries. Juniper berries are a key ingredient in the production of gin.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Why are junipers sometimes called cedars?

    It's unclear exactly why some junipers are commonly referred to as cedars, but it probably has something to do with the aromatic wood and, in some cases, their resemblance to true cedars.

  • What's the best way to decipher a juniper from a cedar?

    Look at the size of the tree—junipers usually grow as shrubs. The leaves of the juniper are needlelike, not fanning, and the small cones they produce resemble berries.