Natural History of White Cedar

Learn the Lifecycle of White Cedar


Northern white cedar trees, thuja occidentalis, are softwood, coniferous evergreen trees. They grow near marshland and on dry limestone ridges in lower Canada and throughout the Great Lakes region. The name “white cedar” is somewhat misleading, as northern white cedars are not true cedars (in the pine family), but are in the cypress family. ‘Northern white cedar’ is also known as ‘American arborvitae’. Arbor-vitae means ‘tree of life’, dating back to the 16th century when Native Americans taught French explorer Jacques Cartier how to use the scale-like cedar leaves to treat scurvy.

An unusually tall conifer, the white cedar typically ranges in height from 50 to 70 feet with a pyramidal crown. The sapwood forms a narrow, nearly white band, while the heartwood dominates and is uniformly straw-brown. The dark-green scaled leaves are fan-shaped, aromatic, and turn bronze in the winter.

The white cedar can be propagated by seed or from cuttings, and will grow and prosper in most soils, but does best in limed soil. It is the origin of numerous hybrids.

The northern white cedar is valuable for wildlife habitat, particularly deer, which use it for shelter and browsing during severe winters. It is also feeds and shelters snowshoe hare, porcupine, red squirrel, and many bird species.