In Praise of the Eastern White Cedar

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

The Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidentalis) is also known as the swamp-cedar. Although it’s most often found in the wild in wet areas, it is also widely cultivated as an ornamental plant. It’s a slow to moderate growing evergreen that has a pyramidal shape; some of them live over 800 years. Despite having “cedar” in its name, this particular tree is not a true cedar but a cypress tree (Cupressaceae).

Cedar trees lining Chemong Lake at the Selwyn Conservation Area. Photo credit: MJ Pilgrim

While on a hike today at the Selwyn Conservation Area, this tree could be seen skirting the hardwood forest with its roots on the lake edge. It was widely prolific in some areas but noticeably absent in others. It’s rare to find one growing separate and distinct from others — they grow in ever widening clumps.

Although cedars are not flowering plants, they produce reproductive organs called “cones.” Because of this, they fit in the conifer family. Winds facilitate the pollination of the cones which results in production of seeds. Both male and female cones occur, but only the female cones yield seeds which are then spread by the wind.

Cedar branch showing cones bearing seeds. Photo credit: MJ Pilgrim

This tree is a member of the redwood family and is important for people and animals alike. Snowshoe hares, porcupines, red squirrels, birds and insects take shelter in its branches, especially during harsh winters. White-tailed deer and moose utilize it for food and shelter.

This tree has a long history of medicinal and practical uses. In the 1500s, on his 2nd trip to Canada, Jacques Cartier called the tree “arborvitae,” which is Latin for “tree of life.” The indigenous peoples gathered branches and boiled them into a tea. The vitamin C from the branches helped to ward off the threat of scurvy for Cartier and his men.

Practically, the Eastern White Cedar is valuable as a decay-resistant timber for canoes, posts, shingles and more. In our area specifically, cedar split rail fences are often still seen — remnants of the challenging farming situation in our rocky landscape. Most of these fences have the rails stacked in an interlocking zig-zag fashion that is self-supporting, easy to create, easy to repair, and easy to disassemble. These fences are ecologically positive, in that while they do the job of keeping larger animals in or out, smaller wildlife can pass through them easily. Being made of wood, they are less intrusive on the landscape, and will naturally break down over time.

Photo credit: MJ Pilgrim

The native cedar’s mature size is 40-50′ tall and 10-15′ wide which is much too large for the average city lot. However, they can be pruned heavily to form dense hedges for windbreaks and privacy fences. Hybridizers have created several popular cultivars for smaller lots including ‘Emerald’, a compact and dense tree with a height of 12-15ft that does not require pruning.

The author would like to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Darcy, Tom and Jim in the writing of this article.


Nature With Us: Eastern White Cedar

Evergreen: Eastern White Cedar, a tall treasure

Credit Valley Conservation: Eastern White Cedar

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