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PNW Tree of Life: WRCedar

There are many cool trees all over the world and possibly more than our 'fair share' in the Pacific northwest due to the variety of habitats and historic geological disturbances of glaciation that isolated tree group progenitors and pushed others into severe habitats. I try not to be biased but also find a lot of incidents of having to pause to admire or fully caress some of our trees. So... there are cool ones. And high on the list of favorites is the western red-cedar, with its sexy trunk, strippy red bark, linear tidy foliage, and little rose-like cones just to start with the aesthetics.

It is a tree with a LOT to love
Thuja plicata, western red-cedar, PNW tree

western red-cedar bark, thuja plicata bark

As its name invokes, red shows in the bark of the trees with a hint in the intact outer bark that sheds in irregular strips, and the inner bark can be a deep rich red often brought by damage or rubbing wear that removes the outer layers.

Unlike it’s name, Thuja plicata is not a cedar. So using the hyphen is the most correct depiction of the name as that is used to denote the “cedar”-ness verses actual Cedar, which are in the Cedrus genus, naturally, and only has four species. They are also within the Pinaceae family while the western red-cedar is in the Cupressaceae family.

Thuja plicata, PNW tree, western red-cedar

No true Cedars are native to the Americas hence when European colonists spotted some of the big conifers in North America they were all, “Hey a cedar, right?”. So there are a lot of so&so-cedars in North America.

Interestingly, some other Thuja species can be found in Eastern Asia, not just in North America. And annoyingly, the species name that means western (T. occidentalis) is not called western, but eastern or northern-white cedar. Yeah… Maybe the species comes from them being “discovered” by the Europeans who traveled west. A tree by any other name, eh?

Thuja plicata vs thuja occidentalis
Thuja plicata vs T. occidentalis leaf underside. From-

True cedars all have pliable but stiff and angular needles that are produced on short-shoots along the stems (like many stubby pine needles or a stiff larch) but new needles are produced singly on young stems. All cedar needles have stomata on the top and bottom of their leaves (called amphistomatic, while hypostomatic are common to drought prone areas with stomata only on the undersides). Cedars also have singular pollen cones (not clusters) and seed cones (the plumper/barrel-shaped lady ones) are upright on short shoots. The seed cones can take about a year and half to develop. That’s devotion to you babies.

Thuja species have very different needles from Cedrus which is another example of people naming things while not paying that much attention. Thuja plicata, like other Thujas, have short evergreen scale leaves with a diamond shape and tend to live between 3-4 years on the branches with a draping planar structure. Their cones are wildly different from Cedar’s being tiny with only a few levels of scales. Leaves are evergreen and arranged in tidy tight tulip shapes with 4 sections of white stomata patches underneath with the top two being mirrored upside-down narrow triangles and the bottom two mirrored wider blunt triangles (or like a short obelisk shape). That’s if you like to stare very close at the undersides of leaves. Who doesn’t!?! (You know you’re a botanist when…)

thuja plicata leaves
Thuja plicata leaves, underside. From-

To tell the "northern" from the "western" species (T. plicata from T. occidentalis)- the leaves have a reliable difference and you can find them all year, unlike cones which can have seasons of scarcity for ID. A northern-cedar lack the obvious white stomatal patches and has more fancy of a tulip shape to the scales, with a flared out tip, while the western red-cedar has a simple smooth curve from tip to base, no recurving back and getting all fancy. Their cones have slight differences as well, more like a tight rose bud.

The other cedar (still not Cedar) in the PNW region is the yellow-cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis) which are smaller than red-cedar (not exactly helpful when you are staring up into a tree of unknown age, I know). They are also bushier with more branches and are at higher elevations than red-cedars and purely a coastal species, so much more limited than red-cedars. Red-cedars can grow up to a thousand years old as well.

Thuja plicata

The sexiest part of these trees to me, are the big buttresses. This is a tree that will make an arborist stop and gasp. “Damn that’s a nice buttress”. Or maybe that’s just me. But British Columbia adopted it as their “official tree” in 1988, so it is clearly special.

western red-cedar buttress, buttress trunk, Thuja plicata buttress, Thuja plicata trunk
Now THAT'S a buttress on this WRCedar

Sexy western red-cedar buttress scan, tree "elevator look".

Cedars are known to have rot-resistant wood, infused with the anti-fungal compound thujaplicin, and is valuable for human uses from building to pest deterrents. Even a fallen tree can resist decay for 100 years and still be useful for building materials, amazing!

western red-cedar thuja plicata

With this trait, they can live very long, with some found over 1000 years old, which is a bit unusual for trees found in mild environments (unlike the extremes causing the slow and very long growth of trees like bristlecone pines into 4-6 thousand years). As if being fed and strengthened by older fallen trees, WRcedars are often found as saplings growing out of old stumps, logs, or the crumbled wood from a snag as it falls apart. These provide damp nutrient rich nursing micro-habitats that builds a Thuja plicata strong. It is little wonder that these trees, long known and respected by native people’s in North America, is often called the Tree of Life.

nurse stump, tree in a stump
Young hemlock tree growing out of an older wester red-cedar stump next to a trail

This tree is not just beautiful and durable and fragrant, it is bountiful. They sprout in the crumbles of prior trees, live long years giving much back to the forest life, and then when they finally fall their own stumps or logs become nurses themselves. Red huckleberries also especially “love” (aka thrive) growing in their stumps. Makes for taller berry picking, but I don’t hold the red-cedars any grudge for that.

nurse stump,

The Coast Salish tribes creative myth for the red-cedar tells of a very generous man who gave away food and other items to those in need and when The Creator deity saw this kindness, they declared that a red-cedar shall grow where this man is buried when he died. Born from the body of generosity; so very accurate to this tree.

Western red-cedar bark strip, cedar bark harvest, cultural trees
Photo of a cultural tree still standing, from

For human purposes, western red-cedars make great canoes and other tools or general

building material and the bark used for umbrellas and worn raingear in the rainy PNW. The native people’s have been using these wonderful trees for thousands of years. Old trees still show where these strips of bark were pulled off as it was done sparingly to not girdle any trees. These are called culturally modified trees, because they are living examples of the culture in the area. A few feet of bark pulled up in a strip up one side doesn’t do much harm to these very giving trees.

Western red-cedar bark strip, cedar bark harvest
Found this WRC with a large section of bark striped, not sure if for traditional use or some other cause as it was right off a trail and went pretty far up the trunk.

Their bark had many other uses to indigenous tribes including use with fishing and medicines. How can you not love these lovely reddish gracefully draping tree? Upholding this esteem, some tribes used the water-tight antifungal wood to construct the boxes used to bury their most respected tribe members- Chiefs.

The western red cedar is in fact considered the symbolize the Pacific Northwest, though not the most common tree in the rainy temperate forests there. There are so many spiritual uses for these cedars I dare only summaries. The branches are considered cleansing & purifying similar to sage (with natural anti-inflammatory properties in fact) and they connect those here to The Creator above, according to some tribes’ traditions. If all this doesn’t make you want to gently caress or hug a cedar, I don’t think you’re that into trees.

With that beautiful trunk buttress, they are highly cuddlable. And I think with all the value they bring both today and in the many thousands of years of human interaction, they are worthy of our appreciation. Maybe I should stop ogling them, but I flirt with those I respect.


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