This is a blog about the native conifers of the Pacific Northwest. It is a companion to the Northwest Conifers site. The blog will focus on timely and interesting details about our conifers, their connections to the rest of the environment, and our connection to them.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Focus on Western Red Cedar

If you are a fan of ferns, you will love western red cedar (Scientific name: Thuja plicata). This conifer looks like a fern on steroids. It is big, even for a tree, sometimes growing to 200 feet. But its foliage of scale-like leaves spreads out in delicate, fern-like sprays. It is easily recognizable in the lower elevations of northwest Oregon and western Washington because it is the only conifer with scale-like leaves. In the Cascades where other cedars grow, you can distinguish western red cedar by the shape of the leaves, which are about as wide as they are long, and by looking at the lower surface of the leaves, which often have a white butterfly-shaped pattern.

The 1/2-inch cones are smaller than western hemlock cones. They sit on top of the branches, often in great numbers. Each cone looks like a tiny rose bud. You can easily recognize a western red cedar even when the branches are too high to see either leaf or cone. Just look for a tree trunk with thin, stringy strips of brown bark. The base is usually buttressed to a greater degree than other conifers.

Western red cedar thrives in wet areas near streams, but don’t be surprised if you find it growing on hillsides and even ridgetops in the coastal forests, where rainfall can top 80 inches in a year. In the Cascades, it often grows to an elevation of 5000 feet. In some locations, it grows higher, for example, around the rim of Crater Lake.

The delicate beauty of western red cedar is well-known. It adorns the cool woods where hikers walk and is a popular and attractive choice in landscaping in its native form. A number of cultivars are available from nurseries, many with patches of yellow foliage.   

Building our sunroom
The wood of western red cedar is light and soft. It has a pungent, pleasing smell and an attractive red-brown color. Its resistance to rotting makes it the wood of choice for many uses, including shingles, siding, decking, and fencing. The most remarkable and extensive uses of western red cedar were before European settlers arrived in the Pacific Northwest. For thousands of years, it was the most important tree to the people who lived in the region, playing an important part in nearly every aspect of life. It was widely used in making canoes, totem poles, tools, and utensils. Without the benefit of saws, they were able to drive wedges into standing trees and split off boards that they used to build lodges. They stripped the bark and used it to make rope, baskets, mats, fishing nets, and even clothing.

Names: The genus name, Thuja, is derived from the Greek name for a kind of juniper. Plicata means "pleated," referring to the pattern of its leaves. Note that the genus of western red cedar is not Cedrus, the genus of the true cedars from the Middle East and Himalayas. The Indian name for the tree, "Shabalup," means "dry underneath," a good thing to remember if you’re ever caught in a rain storm out in the woods. Other common names are canoe cedar, Pacific red cedar, British Columbia cedar, and shinglewood. It is also called giant arborvitae (Latin for "tree of life"), in reference to its East Coast cousin, arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), a much smaller tree. Arborvitae is a widely planted ornamental and commonly used to create hedges. It is also called eastern white cedar, although curiously, occidentalis means western. From the standpoint of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who named it in 1753, it was very western.

Quinault Lake Cedar
Giant Cedars: The biggest western red cedar in the Northwest is the Quinault Lake Cedar on the north shore of Lake Quinault in western Washington. It is 174 feet tall and 19.5 feet in diameter. It has been characterized as the largest cedar in the world measured by volume. Recently discovered and measured in 2011, the largest western red cedar in Oregon is the Arcadia Cedar, near Arcadia Beach State Park, south of Cannon Beach. It is 17 feet in diameter and about 152 feet tall. Not only is it the biggest western red cedar in the state, but the team from Ascending the Giants who measured it determined that it is the biggest tree in the state, based on a scoring system that uses circumference, height and crown spread. A short trail leads to the Quinault Lake Cedar, but there is no trail to the Arcadia Cedar.
References and More Info:


  1. One of my favorite "things" is a widow maker I picked up after an especially strong storm at Camp Adams (over by Molalla). I oiled it down and it leans in the corner of my desk area. A nice reminder of trees. Off to the redwoods next weekend - Big Basin then Armstrong Woods.

  2. Good info Ken. Is that Sasquatch by the tree?!

  3. This is a nice read! Check this out if someone wants to buy thuja and family, American pillar arborvitae for sale