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40 Facts About Western Red Cedar in Nature and Culture

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

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 (also known as western redcedar) 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. (The First Nations are the indigenous people of British Columbia.)

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.

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.

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 for 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. Wood from western red cedar is sometimes used to make the soundboard of guitars. The back and sides of the instruments are made of a different wood, such as rosewood, mahogany, or a wood that is more easily obtained. Some rosewood and mahogany species are experiencing problems at the moment.

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 when it's first obtained. No part of the tree should be ingested until information about safe and harmful concentrations and amounts has been obtained from an authoritative source.

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

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 enjoy examining the species when I find it during my walks, especially when I find a large specimen. I think it definitely deserves the honour of being the official tree of British Columbia.

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 (a PDF document)
  • Ethnobotany of the tree from the University of British Columbia
  • The Antimicrobial Properties of Cedar Leaf (Thuja plicata) Oil; A Safe and Efficient Decontamination Agent for Buildings from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

Questions & Answers

Question: My western red cedar is covered with seeds. Am I doing something wrong?

Answer: I doubt whether there is a problem. A western red cedar often produces many cones, especially when the tree is mature and on those branches that are in open areas and are exposed to a good amount of sunlight. Even so, in some years a tree may produce more cones than in others.

© 2018 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 12, 2020:

Thank you for sharing the information. I’ve added some of it to the article.

Matthew Smith on July 11, 2020:

Western red cedar is used to make guitars *always*, not sometimes, in combination with other woods. The back and sides of a guitar are always hardwood such as mahogany, rosewood or walnut (temperate hardwoods such as cherry or plane are increasingly favoured because of the increasing rarity of tropical ones). Only the top is made of cedar or, most commonly, Sitka spruce.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 15, 2020:

No, not really, though I know that it can form a dense root system in ideal conditions.

Deann Bergquist on April 13, 2020:

Do you know anything about their root systems when found in residential areas?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 06, 2020:

The tree is certainly interesting and might have multiple benefits for us. I hope botanists learn more about it. Thank you for the visit, Peggy.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 06, 2020:

You have greatly expanded my knowledge about the western red cedar tree. Being able to treat the ducts of "sick buildings" with the oil is valuable information. I wonder how long it lasts? If that treatment would be long-lasting, perhaps it could be used as a preventative as well. The trees are beautiful and used in so many ways. It is incredible to think of them standing for 1,000 or even 1,500 years!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 22, 2018:

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.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on October 22, 2018:

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!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 14, 2018:

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

Liz Westwood from UK on October 14, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 13, 2018:

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

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on October 13, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 11, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 11, 2018:

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

Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on October 11, 2018:

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.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on October 11, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 10, 2018:

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

Bede from Minnesota on October 10, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 10, 2018:

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

manatita44 from london on October 10, 2018:

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

joke. Resilient too. Awesome!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 10, 2018:

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

Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on October 10, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 09, 2018:

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

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 09, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 09, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 09, 2018:

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

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 09, 2018:

I like the photos and the beautiful tree.

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on October 09, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 08, 2018:

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

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on October 08, 2018:

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. :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 08, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 08, 2018:

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

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on October 08, 2018:

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!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 08, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 08, 2018:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 08, 2018:

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

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 08, 2018:

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.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 08, 2018:

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!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 08, 2018:

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.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on October 08, 2018:

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