Years ago, I was working for a home builder in The Dalles, Oregon. At one point, the local lumber yard delivered a load of 2 X 4 Alaska cedar decking. As the load dropped to the ground, we noticed that the wood was a curious yellow color. Closer inspection revealed that the wood had a smooth, waxy surface and a distinctive, unpleasant smell. Some years later, while hiking on the south side of Mt. Rainier, I saw what looked to me like an Alaska cedar. To be sure, I stuck a knife blade into the trunk. Sure enough, when I pulled it out and smelled the blade, it smelled just like the 2 x 4 decking. It’s not often that it’s possible to identify a tree by its odor.
Alaska cedar is an attractive narrow tree, easily recognized by its distinctive drooping branchlets. The leaves are scaled with pointed tips that can be prickly. The small round cones are distinctive for conifers of the Cascades, although they look similar to those of Port Orford cedar, which grows along the south coast of Oregon. The bark is gray, and the stringy strips are often detached, giving it a scruffy look. When looking for Alaska cedar, don’t forget to also use your nose. When crushed, the leaves also have an unpleasant smell.
Alaska cedar grows in the upper elevations of the Cascades and Olympic Mountains. You can also find it throughout Southeast Alaska, where it grows down to sea level. In colder regions, it grows where there is deep snow, which protects its shallow roots from freezing. Ironically, the warming climate may cause freeze damage to the roots, as snowpacks become thinner. If you drive to Government Camp on Mt. Hood, you can see some Alaska cedar growing in town. You are likely to see Alaska cedar growing in urban areas, where its attractive, weeping form is desirable for plantings as an ornamental. A number of them are growing at Portland’s Hoyt Arboretum along Fischer Lane.
The wood of Alaska cedar is strong and resists rotting. Sometimes called yellow cedar, the wood is light yellow and turns brighter yellow when wet. The native people of Canada's west coast and Southeast Alaska made canoe paddles, bows, and many other tools and implements from Alaska cedar. Today it is used to make furniture, boats, window frames, shingles, and siding. You can find beautiful carvings of Alaska cedar in gift shops in Southeast Alaska.
The scientific name of Alaska cedar is Callitropsis nootkatensis, formerly Chamaecyparis nootkatensis. The classification of this conifer has been the subject of much recent discussion and indecision among botanists. Other proposed genus names include Xanthocyparis, Cupressus and Hesperocyparis. The species name, nootkatensis, is derived from the name of the Nootka people of Vancouver Island. Oregon Flora shows Callitropsis nootkatensis as the name. Other common names include yellow cedar, Nootka cypress, yellow cypress, and Alaska cypress.
Note: Like the other cedars of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska cedar is not a true cedar. That is, its genus is not Cedrus, the genus of the true cedars from the Middle East and Himalayas. Some writers indicate this by writing the name as "Alaska-cedar."