Western red cedar (Thuja plicata)

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Native to North America, the western red cedar is an evergreen tree that is planted in Britain.

Common name: western red cedar

Scientific name: Thuja plicata
Family: Cupressaceae

UK provenance: non-native

Interesting fact: Western red cedar is sometimes called an 'arborvitae' which is Latin for tree of life, because the evergreen foliage is seemingly sustained without any obviously visible buds.

What does western red cedar look like?

Overview: a tall tree, reaching up to 65m. Some specimens of Western red cedar can live to be over a thousand years old. It is pyramidal in shape, with a broad trunk and dense fern-like foliage. The bark is ridged and dark reddish-brown.

Leaves: leaf bases cover the twigs creating flattened sprays of foliage in opposite pairs. Leaves sprouting from the twigs are small, only 2-3mm long, and scale-like with an ovate shape. They are dark glossy green above with whitish markings underneath. The foliage smells like pear drops or pineapple when crushed.

Flowers: the species is monoecious, which means that both male and female flowers grow on the same tree. Male flowering cones are small and inconspicuous. Female flowering cones are small, reddish purple, and borne near the tips of branches.

Fruits: small, woody cones are brown, slender and oval-shaped with scales. Seeds are brown ovals with narrow wings on either side. 

Look out for: the flat sprays of foliage smell like pineapple when crushed. The distinctive cones and are specifically oval shaped, not globes, and have between 1 and 12 scales. The wings down each side of the seeds are papery.

Could be confused with: other planted cypresses. The cones and scented foliage tell it apart.

Identified in winter by: it is an evergreen so its features are present year round.

Where to find western red cedar

In the UK, the tree is often planted in as hedging in gardens or for timber.

Value to wildlife

The tree's dense foliage attracts many birds and insects who find shelter in the fissured bark.

Mythology and symbolism

It is an important tree in native American culture, where it is the provincial tree emblem for British Columbia. It is said to be a very strong tree and its strength is celebrated in its native land. Tales say that a person could receive its strength even if standing with their back to the tree.

How we use western red cedar

In the UK, the tree is planted for timber and shelter. The wood is highly sought after, being one of the most durable in the world. It has an aromatic fragrance which can be retained for long periods of time and it also contains a natural preservative that prevents decaying fungi. The durable wood is soft and favoured in construction.

Threats

Western red cedar may be susceptible to attacks by scale insects and conifer aphids that suck the sap from the tree.

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