Northern white cedars are one of the most popular ornamental conifers in North America. They are most commonly used as hedge and screen trees. They’re valued for their attractive evergreen foliage and dense crowns.
Part of the cypress family (Cupressaceae), the northern white cedar tree is commonly known as an eastern white cedar, eastern arborvitae, American arborvitae, or swamp cedar, because of the wet growing conditions of the tree. They are not actually a true cedar.
The name arborvitae is Latin for “tree of life”, which the tree was given for the highly beneficial medicinal properties of the twigs, bark, foliage, and sap of this remarkable tree.
These trees are moderately fast-growing but very long-lived. With a common life expectancy of 400 years old, there are some trees growing on cliff faces of southern Ontario which are the oldest trees in all of eastern North America, with one tree specimen found with 1653 tree rings.
101 Types of Trees is a huge article we’ve compiled of some other cedar species, as well as tongs of other tree types from all over the world! We cover flowering trees, fruit trees, big trees, small trees, old trees, and tall trees.
What do Northern White Cedars Look Like?
The northern white cedar tree grows in extremely water-saturated soils. When trees grow in very moist conditions, they will more commonly develop a root system that is very shallow in the soil.
Trees do this because when they have all the moisture they need, root systems don’t need to grow in the directions of a moisture reserve, which is usually very deep in the earth.
White cedars will have roots that rarely grow any deeper than 20 inches in the soil, though this can somewhat be to their detriment. If they don’t have a well established root system, they can be easily knocked over by a strong wind storm.
Northern white cedars are known as being medium to small-sized trees. When cultivated they will usually only grow to be around 15 meters tall with a trunk diameter of 0.9 meters.
When growing in the wild in ideal conditions, there are some northern white cedars that have grown to be closer to 38 meters tall. When they grow in the wild in less favorable conditions, they tend to experience very stunted and gnarled growth.
These trees are easily identified by their crown shape. They have very long and pyramidal-shaped crowns that are very dense and compact.
A young tree will have red/brown bark that lightly furrowed. A mature tree will have bark that has faded to more of a gray/brown color. They have deeply furrowed bark that peels away in narrow, vertical strip.
Another easy way to identify the northern white cedar tree is by its leaves. This is an evergreen tree species, meaning that it has foliage that will remain green and persist all year long, regardless of the climate.
These trees develop scale-like leaves, but seedlings have more needle-like leaves. Their growth pattern make them appear as flat sprays. Each individual leaf is 3-5mm long and is a deep green color.
These scaly leaves are arranged in tight rows along the twigs, and they overlap in such a way that obscures the twig. This tree is known for having pleasantly spicy fragrant foliage.
How do Northern White Cedar Trees Reproduce?
Cedar trees are monoecious, meaning that both male flowers (pollen-producing) and female flowers (seed-producing) can occur on the same tree.
Northern white cedars bear flowers in the form of tiny cone-like bodies that are borne on separate branchlets. These flower-cones bud in the fall, and will emerge the following spring. The tree with “flower” or, open its cones, in late April or May.
Female cones, or the seed cones, are a slender shape, and appear at the tips of short terminal branchlets. They are a yellow or pink color before they ripen to brown when they are mature. Each cone has 6-8 overlapping scales, with each scale hosting 8 seeds.
Male cones, or pollen cones, are egg-shaped and are a yellow color before they mature into brown. They are borne on branchlets near the base of the shoot.
Pollen cones release their pollen in the spring which will be wind-dispersed to fertilize a seed cone. Once a seed is fertilized, it will become mature in the fall. The cone will open its scales to release the seeds which are winged to help with wind dispersal, and are a chestnut brown color.
Northern white cedar trees can start to produce cones as young as 6 years old, but they will reach their optimum cone crop production around the age of 75. Trees will produce very productive crops in intervals of 2-5 years, with less productive crops the years in between.
What are Some Other Cedar Types?
The Atlas Cedar Tree (Cedrus Atlantica)
Atlas cedars are part of the pine family, and they are native to the Atlas mountains of Morocco. They tend to form forests on mountainsides when growing wild.
These are common cultivated trees and are used as ornamental or street trees. They are medium to large-sized, reaching heights between 30 and 35 meters.
The Western Red Cedar Tree (Thuja Plicata)
Western red cedars are also sometimes called the Pacific red cedar, the giant arborvitae, or the western arborvitae. They are one of the most widespread tree species in the pacific northwest.
These are very large trees, sometimes reaching heights between 65 and 70 meters. They can be found from sea level to high altitudes.
The Atlantic White Cedar Tree (Chamaecyparis Thyoides)
Atlantic white cedars are native to the Atlantic coast of North America, specifically along the Gulf of Mexico and 100 miles inward. They are a medium to large tree, between 20 and 30 meters tall.
They are an obligate wetland species, meaning that part of the tree must be completely underwater for its entire growing season. This restricts them to very specific growing areas.
Where do Northern White Cedar Trees Grow?
Northern white cedars are a native tree to eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. In Canada, they can be found in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.
In America, they can be found in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
They tend to grow in areas that experience cool summers and short growing seasons. This usually occurs in wet forests with abundant conifers.
The northern white cedar prefers to grow in swamps where other fast-growing trees can’t compete for a spot in the forest canopy in wet conditions. They can be found in abundance along lakeshores and in wetlands, or near swamps and peat bogs.
Though they experience less prosperous and gnarled growth, they exist in extreme abundance on cliff sides where other trees can’t tolerate the low nutrient soil and harsh winds.
What are the Growing Conditions of Northern White Cedars?
The northern red cedar tree is tolerant of many different soil types, from completely waterlogged to low nutrient soils. They tend to perform best in moist soil that is well-drained.
Northern red cedars, like most other evergreen trees, are sun-loving and prefer to exist in full sun.
These trees tend to grow in regions that experience cool summers, with average temperatures of 62 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and very short growing seasons.
How are Northern White Cedar Trees Used?
Northern white cedar wood is very lightweight and is known for being resistant to decay. For this reason, it is often used for manufacturing items that will experience weathering.
This wood is used commercially for lumber, shingles, posts, rustic fencing, cabin logs, and structural elements like planks and ribs. It has also been used traditionally to create wooden canoes.
Northern white cedar trees are also one of the most popular and one of the best options for screen and hedge trees for landscaping. There are over 300 cultivars that exist with varying shapes, sizes, and foliage colors.
This tree is a very important source of food, shelter, and habitat for many mammal and bird species. The snowshoe hair feeds on lower branches, as well as the red squirrel, American beaver porcupine, and sometimes moose.
But none other prefers northern white cedar foliage more than the white-tailed deer. It is an essential winter food for this animal and it is packed with tons of vitamins and other nutrients.
White-tailed deer eat so much of this foliage that it has begun to affect the population of white cedars in areas that have large deer populations, to the point where the tree is now endangered.
The northern white cedar is a very significant member of the Ojibwe culture. The tree has been named Nokomis Giizhik, which means “grandmother cedar”. This tree is the subject of many sacred legends and is considered as being a gift to humanity.
This is because of the great nutrients found in the sap, bark, and foliage of the tree. Leaves contain high amounts of vitamin C, which is a very important nutrient to have access to during the long winter months. Twigs and inner bark can brewed into a delicious and nutritious tea.
Essential oils taken from the bark and leaves of a tree can be made into disinfectants, insecticides, and other helpful cleansing cosmetics as well.