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Tree 11: Western Red Cedar

Latin name: Thuja plicata
Family: Cupressaceae
Other names: Western Arborvitae, Giant Arborvitae, Pacific Red Cedar
Origin: North America
Height: up to 65m
Lifespan: up to 1500 years
Autumn leaf loss: Evergreen
Gender Type: Monoecious (Male and female flowers on same tree)

The Western Red Cedar was introduced to the UK in 1853 and has since become a popular ornamental and hedge tree. It has a pyramidal shape and is fast growing, with a broad trunk of up to 7m in diameter and with ridged, dark-reddish bark that offers shelter to birds and insects within its fissures. Although not a ‘true cedar’, the wood looks and smells like one. When the outer bark is pulled away, a fibrous inner bark is revealed.

The foliage of the tree is dense and fern-like and when its aromatic leaves are crushed they release a sweet fragrance that is likened to pear drops or pineapple. The glossy leaves are sharply pointed and held in drooping sprays that curve upwards at the ends. Can you release the scent?

Oval-shaped cones are a distinctive feature of the species. The knobbly cones are around 1.3cm in length, have between 1 and 12 scales and sport papery ‘wings’ down each side. Any cones to see today?

The Western Red Cedar does provide food and shelter for wildlife, but it in the UK it is mainly grown for hedging and timber. Its wood is highly durable, impermeable to liquids and resistant to fungal attack due to its naturally occurring phenols. These properties result in it being one of the most valuable of all softwoods and being widely used in the construction of boats and as a great material for making posts and shingles. The ceiling of the Welsh Assembly Building in Cardiff was built using Western Red Cedar, imported from Canada.

The tree is widespread in the Pacific northwest of North America and it is the tree-emblem of British Colombia (BC). Indigenous tribes of BC revere the species for its spiritual and healing powers and it is regarded as the ‘tree of life’ that is celebrated for its strength. North American mythology claims that its power is so strong that one can receive its strength simply by standing with one’s back to the tree. Worth a try? No wonder that the people of these lands traditionally build canoes and totem poles from it!