40 Facts About Western Red Cedar in Nature and Culture

Updated on October 7, 2018
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

Seed cones of a western red cedar
Seed cones of a western red cedar | Source

A Common and Useful Tree

Western red cedar is a widespread and popular tree in the Pacific Northwest region of North America. It has been introduced to other parts of the world and is a useful as well as an interesting plant. It grows in both a wild and a cultivated form in Canada and the United States. It’s the official tree of British Columbia, where I live.

Historically, western red cedar was a very important plant for the indigenous or First Nations people who lived in the coastal area. In this article, I describe forty facts about the plant and the importance of the “tree of life” in the local culture. Unless otherwise stated, the photos of the tree were taken by me.

Leaves of the tree
Leaves of the tree

The genus Thuja contains five species: the western and eastern red cedars native to North America and three species native to Asia. The members of the genus are often known as arborvitaes from the Latin words for tree of life.

Classification and Habitat

1. Western red cedar is not a true cedar. It has the scientific name Thuja plicata and belongs to the cypress family, or the Cupressaceae. Cedars belong to the genus Cedrus and the pine family, or the Pinaceae.

2. To emphasize the plant's real lineage, some people join the last two words of its name together and call it the western redcedar.

3. The tree is most strongly associated with damp and sometimes foggy coastal forest. It's found from southern Alaska to Northern California. On the coast, it generally grows with Douglas fir and western hemlock.

4. A separate population of the tree can be found in damp areas in the interior of British Columbia. This population extends into Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

5. The plant is capable of growing in drier soil than is found in its coastal habitat and is sometimes seen at higher elevations.

Western red cedar is capable of living well over a thousand years. According to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, many trees over 1,500 years old have been discovered.

Physical Features of the Plant

6. The bark of the western red cedar's trunk is red brown to grey. It tends to be brown when the trunk spends most of its time in the shade and grey when it's often exposed to the sun.

7. The bark is fissured. When it's mature, it can be pulled off in strips. First Nations people have made good use of these strips, as described below.

8. The trunk is often buttressed at the base. A buttress root branches from a tree's trunk above ground and then extends into the ground. It provides extra support for the tree and sometimes extra nutrients as well.

9. The normal branches of the red cedar trunk divide repeatedly to form ever narrowing branchlets.

10. The terminal branchlets bear flat rows of leaves on either side in an arrangement called a spray. Each leaf is a small scale only 2 to 3 mm long.

11. The species name of the tree means "plaited". The word likely refers to the complex arrangement of the leaf scales.

12. The leaves range from yellow green to medium green in colour, depending in part on the lighting conditions. They are a lighter shade of green on their undersurface, which sometimes has white markings.

13. A mature plant often has dead, orange leaves on the innermost part of its branches but can still look attractive due to the living leaves on the outermost part of the branches.

14. The tree is frequently conical but is sometimes irregularly shaped. It can reach a height of seventy metres.

The tree in my photos below emerges from the ground as one buttressed trunk but soon divides into two trunks. Western red cedars sometimes exhibit this characteristic, though the position of the division or divisions into different trunks varies.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Bark of the western red cedarAn interesting design at the base of a treeTwo trunks growing beside each other and a birch treeA close-up view of the birch roots next to the cedarThe two trunksA more distant view of the communityA view from underneath the branches
Bark of the western red cedar
Bark of the western red cedar
An interesting design at the base of a tree
An interesting design at the base of a tree
Two trunks growing beside each other and a birch tree
Two trunks growing beside each other and a birch tree
A close-up view of the birch roots next to the cedar
A close-up view of the birch roots next to the cedar
The two trunks
The two trunks
A more distant view of the community
A more distant view of the community
A view from underneath the branches
A view from underneath the branches

Cones and Reproduction

15. The western red cedar is a conifer and therefore reproduces by cones. The female ones are known as seed cones and the male ones as pollen cones.

16. The seed cones are much bigger than the pollen ones. Both types of cones develop on the same tree and are woody in appearance when mature.

17. A pollen cone is about one to three millimetres long and is borne at the tip of a row of leaves. As its name suggests, it releases pollen grains.

18. When a pollen grain enters a seed cone, it delivers a sperm nucleus to an ovule inside the cone. Here the sperm fertilizes an egg cell and a seed is subsequently created.

19. Both the sperm and the egg are haploid, which means they have half the number of chromosomes found in the plant. When they join, they form a diploid zygote, which has the full number of chromosomes and becomes a new plant.

20. Each seed or female cone produces around three to six seeds on average. They have small wings and are distributed to new areas by wind. Conifers don't produce fruits. The seeds are released form the parent plant on their own.

21. Both self and cross pollination occur in the western red cedar.

22. The plant is capable of vegetative reproduction. Fallen branches sometimes develop roots, for example.

Conifers belong to a major group of plants known as gymnosperms. The name "gymnosperm" comes from two Greek words meaning naked seed. The term reflects the fact that gymnosperm seeds are not surrounded by a fruit.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The seed cones are the bigger ones (including the one that looks as though it's smiling) and the pollen cones are the smaller ones.Younger seed cones that haven't yet opened up
The seed cones are the bigger ones (including the one that looks as though it's smiling) and the pollen cones are the smaller ones.
The seed cones are the bigger ones (including the one that looks as though it's smiling) and the pollen cones are the smaller ones.
Younger seed cones that haven't yet opened up
Younger seed cones that haven't yet opened up

Three Interesting Chemicals in the Tree

23. Thuja plicata contains three interesting chemicals (and probably many more that would be interesting to investigate). The wood contains plicatic acid, which can provoke asthma and allergies in sensitive people. This can be a major problem for people who work with the wood and is common enough to be considered an occupational hazard.

24. Plicatic acid can also provoke contact dermatitis, which is inflammation of the skin after touching a harmful substance. The condition generally involves redness and itching.

25. The plant contains a chemical called thujone, which produces a scent like menthol when the leaves are rubbed or crushed. Some people say that the smell of the crushed leaves is more like pineapple, but it isn't to me. Thujone is used in some perfumes. The quantity of the chemical that's used is often strictly limited because it can have harmful effects on the nervous system.

26. The wood contains a chemical called thujaplicin, which acts as a fungicide and a bactericide. This is one reason when the wood is often resistant to decay.

Nootka cypress or the yellow cedar is a somewhat similar plant to the red cedar. It has the same type of leaves but is a smaller and bushier tree. It also has pendulous branches. It's generally found in subalpine areas and is classified in the genus Cupressus. Historically, First Nations people made use of both plants.

HIstorical Uses and Importance

27. In earlier times, the western red cedar had both a cultural and a spiritual significance for the people of the First Nations. It's still valuable in their culture today.

28. Coast Salish people have a lovely legend about the creation of the tree. There once existed a good man who gave his belongings to people in need. When he died, the Creator created the western red cedar on top of his burial site so that the people could continue to receive what they needed.

29. The tree was once widely used by First Nations people, but the actual uses of the plant varied according to the culture of a specific group.

30. The wood of the tree was used to create totem poles, masks, canoes, paddles, spears, hooks for fishing, and longhouses. Fibres from the bark were used to create baskets, cords, ropes, and fishing nets.

31. Fibres from both the red and yellow cedar were used to weave clothing, hats, blankets, and mats.

32. The western red cedar was harvested with care. Only a section of bark was removed on a particular tree in order to keep it alive. Trees were cut down, but not excessively. Traditionally, a prayer was said and the tree's spirit thanked before it was cut.

The cedar and the birch
The cedar and the birch

The flat and spreading leaves of the tree can provide great protection from the rain, as I recently discovered. As the rain started to pour down, I moved under a large western red cedar tree and stayed amazingly dry. Very little rain reached me.

Modern Uses and Significance

33. Western red cedar timber has many uses in construction today. It's valued for both its durability and its relatively light weight.

34. The wood is used to build shingles for roofs, siding for homes, and indoor panels. In addition, it's used to make decks and both indoor and outdoor furniture.

35. The wood is also used to make guitars, sometimes in combination with other types of wood.

36. Several parts of the tree were once used medicinally by First Nations people. Today an oil is distilled from its leaves. As with other essential oils from plants, it's very important to investigate effectiveness and safety before using the liquid for any purpose. It's a concentrated substance. Other parts of the tree shouldn't be eaten, at least until more information is available in relation to safe and harmful amounts.

37. Researchers from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University (another major university in the province) have found that the oil kills certain fungi and bacteria found in ventilation ducts of "sick buildings". This is the term used for buildings that cause symptoms of ill health in the people who work there.

38. Wildlife also makes use of the tree. It's an important source of food for deer, for example.

39. Bears, skunks, and raccoons build dens in cavities in the tree's trunk.

40. In addition, the tree provides a good place for some birds to nest.

A western red cedar at Blarney Castle in Ireland
A western red cedar at Blarney Castle in Ireland | Source

Western red cedar trees are popular as ornamental plants in parks near my home and are used to form hedges in local gardens. Wild trees grow in the forests nearby. The tree is important today and its uses in the past are interesting. I think it definitely deserves the honour of being the official tree of the province.

References

Information about western red cedar from the Government of British Columbia

Thuja plicata entry from The Gymnosperm Database

Facts about Thuja plicata from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forestry Service

Information about the tree from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources

Ethnobotany of the tree from the University of British Columbia

Hudson, J., Kuo, M., & Vimalanathan, S. (2011). The Antimicrobial Properties of Cedar Leaf (Thuja plicata) Oil; A Safe and Efficient Decontamination Agent for Buildings. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8(12), 4477–4487. http://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph8124477

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Crampton

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the comment and for sharing the information, Chitrangada. I did a quick check and found that the Deodar tree is actually a true cedar (genus Cedrus), but it looks beautiful. Thank you for introducing me to the plant.

      • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

        Chitrangada Sharan 

        4 weeks ago from New Delhi, India

        Excellent and informative article about the Western Cedar trees.

        The leaves look unique and strong, and quite similar to the Deodar trees, found in Northern region of India, also called the Himalayan ranges. I think it’s the same species.

        Thanks for the details of this wonderful tree and glad to know about it’s many uses.

        Thanks for sharing!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for commenting, Liz. I like the trees, too.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 weeks ago from UK

        Thanks for this informative article. I especially like Cedar trees.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I appreciate your comment, Genna. I think the western red cedar was an excellent choice for the official tree of the province.

      • Genna East profile image

        Genna East 

        5 weeks ago from Massachusetts, USA

        Such gorgeous trees, Linda...and stunning photographs! I especially liked the "smiling seed cone." :-) The Tree of Life and your official tree of province seem so apropos in describing this majestic beauty -- in many ways. Thank you.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the comment, Peg. I love the smell that the trees create. They are interesting plants.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Nithya. Thanks for the visit. "Majestic" is a great word to describe many of the trees.

      • PegCole17 profile image

        Peg Cole 

        5 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas

        Beautiful photos and interesting uses of this gorgeous, long-living tree. I enjoyed learning about the First Nation's uses for the tree's oil and wood products.We have a variety of the cedar tree that grows wild in Texas, too. When the limbs are mulched, they give off a strong cedar smell.

      • Vellur profile image

        Nithya Venkat 

        5 weeks ago from Dubai

        The Western Red Cedar is majestic and beautiful to see. Thank you for sharing these facts and photos.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Bede. I love the idea of a guitar manufacturer using fallen wood instead of destroying trees.

      • Bede le Venerable profile image

        Bede 

        5 weeks ago from Minnesota

        Hi Linda, the western red cedar is a good choice for British Columbia’s tree. It seems to capture the outdoorsy persona of the place. I have a Canadian-made classical guitar that has a cedar top. The company only uses trees that have fallen to the ground naturally, though I’m sure if it’s western red cedar.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Manatita. Yes, I think the tree is awesome. The tallest trees are especially impressive.

      • manatita44 profile image

        manatita44 

        5 weeks ago from london

        Some tree. Tall, majestic, sturdy and long- lasting.1000 years is no

        joke. Resilient too. Awesome!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Eman. It's a lovely tree to explore.

      • Emmy ali profile image

        Eman Abdallah Kamel 

        5 weeks ago from Egypt

        This tree really calls for meditation, it looks very beautiful and also many benefits. Thank you, Linda, for this useful article.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I appreciate your comment, Dora. I think that the tree deserves to be respected, too. It's an important and interesting plant.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        5 weeks ago from The Caribbean

        To being with, the leaves are very attractive. Apart from how beautiful this tree is, it deserves to be respected for its may uses to people and animals. Thanks again for a very interesting presentation.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks, Devika. It's a lovely tree to explore.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Cynthia. I appreciate your visit and comment.

      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 

        6 weeks ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        I like the photos and the beautiful tree.

      • CMHypno profile image

        CMHypno 

        6 weeks ago from Other Side of the Sun

        Fascinating hub Linda. Shows how important one tree species can be to the ecosystem. Great facts and wonderful pictures

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Detecting scents online would be lovely! Thanks for the idea and the comment, Heidi.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        6 weeks ago from Chicago Area

        Thanks for sharing the info on this beautiful tree, along with your personal photos! Cedars have such an amazing scent. Wish we could get a whiff of that in the photos. Maybe one day with tech. :)

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I love the thought of long rows of cedar trees! Thank you for the comment, Jackie.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Pamela. I think the age of some of the plants is impressive. They are interesting plants.

      • Jackie Lynnley profile image

        Jackie Lynnley 

        6 weeks ago from The Beautiful South

        I love these trees. There is a park near me with long rows of them and I have so many pictures because they are so beautiful. Thanks for the wonderful info!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Flourish. I wish I could go to Ireland to see the tree and other sights. I think that would be a wonderful trip.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks, Bill. I love the trees, too. I'm glad they grow in our part of the world.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the visit, Louise. I think they're lovely trees, too.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        6 weeks ago from USA

        I especially appreciated the information on the First Nations’ use of the tree and the allergies. It’s a versatile tree. I saw the one at Blarney Castle I bet, although I didn’t know what I was looking at.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        6 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        Finally you reported on something I know about. lol...it's about time, my friend. I absolutely love these trees, and they definitely deserve their own article. Well done!

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        6 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        I think this is a beautiful tree with many interesting facts. I love that last picture as it looks like the tree has lived for a very long time.

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        6 weeks ago from Norfolk, England

        Thanks for the information. This has been very interesting to read as I know very little about cedar trees. They are lovely trees.

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