The Western Red cedar is one of the most well known trees of the pacific northwest region of North America. Known botanically as Thuja plicata, it is not actually a true cedar but a member of the Cypress family that includes cypress trees, arborvitaes and junipers. True cedars such as Cedar of Lebanon and the Atlas cedar are actually members of the Pinaceae family and belong to the genus Cedrus.
Western Red cedars have scale-like foliage that is similar to that of a juniper. The leaves are a shiny green and very aromatic when crushed. The branches are carried similarly to a bald cypress and grow downward and then swoop back up in a characteristic J-shape. The leaves form drooping swoops that hang gracefully downward like long tufts of moss. The characteristic red bark can be easily pealed off in large strips and the wood is also highly aromatic and quite resistant to rot. Western Red Cedars can grow from 150 to 200 feet in the wild. The largest specimen in the world which can be found near Kalaloch, WA, is 178 feet tall and has a trunk diameter of 19.4 feet. Old specimens tend to lose the top portion of growth over time due to weather or pests but the tree continues to add girth to its overall size.
The native habitat of this tree ranges from the lower elevations of the Oregon, Washington and British Columbian coasts to the Cascade mountain range. The large specimens grow best where there is heavy rainfall such as in the Hoh and Quinault National Rainforests of Washington state.
The Western Red cedar is one of the most important trees of the Native Americans of the pacific northwest. Known as “the cornerstone of northwest coast Indian culture”, this tree was used as an important material in much the same way the Buffalo was used by the Native Americans of the Plains. Believed to have been the reincarnated spirit of a man who led a life always helping others, this tree was used for the making of just about anything that was needed which included canoes, totems, roof shingles, baskets, beds, clothing and tools.
The Western Red cedar is an impressive tree not only in size but with its history as such an important part of the existence of native cultures thanks to its unique versatility. There are many wonderful National and State Parks in the pacific northwest that are great destinations for anyone who wants to experience the beauty and enchantment of these impressive trees.
Coombs, Allen J. Eyewitness Handbooks Trees. New York: Dorling Kindersley, Inc, 1992.
Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Field Guide to North American Trees. Syracuse: Knopf, 1980.
Pojar, Jim, Andy MacKinnon. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Vancouver: Lone Pine Publishing, 1994.