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What is a Western Red Cedar Tree?

Photo collage of different western red cedar tree.

Thuja Plicata

Western red cedars are evergreen coniferous trees that are part of the cypress family (cupressaceae), and are not actually part of the genus cedrus, which is the true cedar family. This causes a lot of confusion between cedars, junipers, and cypress, but there are many instances of casual tree names coming from other botanical families due to similarities in physical appearances. These trees are commonly known as western redcedar (to help differentiate from a true cedar), Pacific red cedar, giant cedar, shinglewood, British Columbia cedar, canoe cedar, incense cedar, or giant arborvitae.

The word arborvitae is latin for “tree of life”, which comes from all the medicinal properties and nutrients that can be found in the sap, inner bark, twigs, and foliage of this beautiful tree. The scientific term plicata is latin for “folded in plaits” or “braided”, which is in reference to the unique leaf arrangement of the western red cedar tree. Western red cedars are one of the most resilient, adaptable, and widespread trees of the Pacific northwest.

They live in complete abundance on the western side of North America. We’ve compiled a huge list of 101 Types of Trees from all around the world. If you finish this article and you are feeling curious about other types of cedar trees, fruit trees, evergreen trees, or any other type of tree under the sun, you are likely to find it there!

What do Western Red Cedar Trees Look Like?

Root System

The western red 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.

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Red 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.


Western red cedars are very very large trees, with an average height occurring between 65 and 70 meters! They will have a super wide trunk diameter to help support that height, usually between 3 and 7 meters around.

This is an illustration showcasing the dimensions of a western red cedar tree isolated on a white background.

Growth Pattern

Western red cedar trees will have a different crown shape, depending on where they are growing. When they grow out in an open field, they will have a very large and open crown with branches that will sometimes reach the ground. When they are growing in a crowded forest, they will have a much more dense and compact crown that only starts much nearer to the top of the forest canopy, where leaves are able to access sunlight.


Western red cedars have light gray bark that peels off in long vertical strips.


Western red cedars are evergreen trees, meaning that they have foliage that will remain green and persist all year long, regardless of the season. Western red cedar leaves are scale-like in form. They grow in flat sprays, and grow in opposite pairs 90 degrees from one another on a twig.

These scale leaves are green on the topside, with a noticeable white stomatal band on the underside. Each life is 1-4mm long, and they are known for having a very strong aroma. Some say when crushed, they have a slight scent of pineapple!

This is a close up view of bright green scale leaves of the western red cedar tree.

How do Western Red Cedar Trees Reproduce?


Cedar trees are monoecious, meaning that male cones (pollen cones) and female cones (seed cones) occur on the same tree. A pollen cones is 3-4mm long, ovoid in shape, and is a red or purple color before maturing into brown. They shed yellow pollen in the spring.

A seed cone is 10-18mm long, has a more slender shape, and is green or yellow before maturing into brown. They open in the fall, about 6 months after their original pollination. Seed cones have overlapping scales, with each scale hosting 8-12 seeds.

This is a single branch with green scale leaves and mature brown cones of the western red cedar tree isolated on white background.


Pollen is wind dispersed which then lands in the scales of a seed cone. Once it is fertilized, the scales will close as the seeds mature. Then, the seed cone will open its scales to release the seeds.

Seeds are 4-5mm long and light brown. Each seed has a light papery wing on other side, to help with wind dispersal.

Sexual Maturity

Western red cedar trees will usually start producing cones between the ages of 10 and 20 years old, but optimal crop bearing years occur closer to 70 and 80 years old. Cone crops can occur for centuries, and these trees can sometimes live up to over 1500 years of age!

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.

This is a very large and robust atlas cedar tree growing next to walking paths in a public park.

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.

This is a very large atlantic white cedar tree growing with other conifers in a large public landscape.

The Northern White Cedar Tree (Thuja Occidentalis)

Northern white cedar trees are native to the eastern side of North America. They grow in abundance in regions with cool summers and short growing seasons. They are a sometimes small, sometimes medium sized tree.

When cultivated they usually only reach 15 meters in height, but when growing in the wild the can reach 35 meters in height. They are one of the most popular trees for landscape uses, such as hedges and screen trees.

This is a row of growing northern white cedar trees in a hedge in a large garden.

Where do Western Red Cedar Trees Grow?

Western red cedar trees are native to the west coast of North America, though they have now become naturalized in Britain. They are cultivated all over western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand as well. These trees are the most prosperous and abundant trees in Canada and the United States.

They can grow all the way from sea level to 2290 meters above sea level. Rarely growing in pure stands, they are commonly associated with the Douglas fir tree and the western hemlock tree. Western red cedars grow best in lush forests and on moist mountainsides.

They can be found growing in forested swamps, beside stream banks and lake sides, and near swamps and bogs as well. They are a riparian tree species, and occur often in the interface between land and river.

These are the huge and thick trunks of the western red cedar tree all growing in a stand with snow on the ground.

What are the Growing Conditions of Western Red Cedar Trees?


Though western red cedar trees can tolerate many different soil types, they prefer moist to wet soil. This is very common for various cedar trees, who often exist in completely water logged soils. These soils are packed with nutrients.

Sun Exposure

Western red cedars are a remarkably shade tolerant tree, which is slightly unusual for evergreens which are usually shade intolerant. Even their seeds are able to successfully germinate in full shade conditions.

Water Level

The Pacific northwest has temperate rainforest like conditions, which means they receive a ton of annual precipitation. These regions are ideal for the western red cedar, as they grow best in very wet soils.

These are the growing western red cedar trees growing in a snowy forest.

How are Western Red Cedar Trees Used?


Western red cedar wood is a soft red/brown color with a tight straight grain, and very few knots. This wood is known for its resistance to decay, and its very pleasant aroma and appearance. For these reasons, western red cedar wood is often used for outdoor purposes, since it is resistant to rotting or water damage.

This wood is used for posts, decking, siding, framing, shingles (hence the nickname “shinglewood tree”), and for the manufacturing of sailboats and kayaks as well. Because of its lovely scent, western red cedar wood is often used as closet and cupboard lining as well. Both for the smell, and because it is a naturally insect repelling scent, helping keep moths at bay.

This is a sample plank of western red cedar wood with lovely color and grain pattern.


The western red cedar is known as being the “tree of life”, and certain Native Americans of western Canada and the United States refer to themselves as “people of the redcedar” because of their great relationship with all this beautiful tree has to offer. First off, the inner bark, sap, twigs, and foliage of the western red cedar all contain high amounts of vitamin C and other nutrients, which can sometimes be crucial in the long winter months. Great utilization of western red cedar is taken as well.

The high quality wood is used for housing, totem poles, masks, utensils, instruments, canoes, and cooking apparatus’ as well. The world renowned bentwood boxes of First Nations communities are also made using western red cedar wood. The roots and bark of the tree are used for creating baskets, clothing, blankets, ropes, and bowls as well.

These are the beautiful first nations totem poles from Vancouver island made from western red cedar tree trunks.


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