Western Red Cedar Trees: What Should You Know?

The western red cedar tree is native to North America in the western parts. Although the western red cedar carries the name “cedar”, it is not part of the cedar (Cedrus) genus. It thrives at almost all elevations. Unlike the other species that are unique to the Pacific Northwest, the western red cedar spreads across most of the area and is not limited to small patches.

Overall, the western red cedar is a large tree like other species found only in the northwest. These trees can grow over 200 feet tall and 25 feet in width. Western red cedars burn easily and are prone to forest fire damage. Even so, the environment depends on the cones and leaves that are produced by the western red cedar for sustenance. Lumbers found through working with these might trees that they are highly allergenic, causing significant breathing issues. Though wildfires threaten the western United States, the western red cedar is so common that the population has seen little impact.

So How Many Kinds of Western Red Cedar Trees are There?

The Thuja genus contains coniferous trees and shrubs in the Pacific Northwest, Eastern North America, and Eastern Asia. Out of the five species in this genus, only two of the species are trees. The western red cedar, or Thuja plicata, lives only on the western side of North America. Accordingly, the eastern white cedar, or Thuja occidentalis, lives only on the eastern side of North America. While the common names of these two tree species use the “cedar” name, they have no relation to the Cedrus family.

The shrubs related to the western red cedar are:

  • Korean thuja
  • Japanese thuja
  • Sichuan thuja

On the other hand, there is a long list of species that were once thought to be included in the Thuja genus that have now been removed.

How Large Do Western Red Cedar Trees Grow?

Western red cedars grow to enormous heights. According to the State of Oregon, western red cedars grow on average to 150 feet. However, the tallest of the species currently measures to 200 feet. The oldest trees reach spans of 20 feet across. The trunks are mighty giants in the forest or spreading across a mountain range. Additionally, the needles grow to 1/8 inch in length.

What Does a Western Red Cedar Tree Look Like?

The western red cedar mimics the other gentle giants of the Western United States. Similar to the giant sequoia and the coastal redwood, the western red cedar has a dark brown and red bark. The bark peels off easily and can measure up to one inch thick.

Western Red Cedar Tree bark

Overall, the western red cedar grows broad and tall. It is a coniferous tree sporting sharp, small needles. The needles are green with a white stripe. In dense forest, the needles are primarily found near the top of the trunk in a crown in order to receive proper lighting. When allowed to grow in the open, branches and needles grow the full length of the trunk. 

The cones are small and measure less than an inch in length. Nonetheless, they are plentiful across the tree and fall, to the ground in the fall hoping to spread the seed of the western red cedar.

Where Can I Find a Western Red Cedar Tree?

The western red cedar grow across much of the Pacific Northwest. The range is wide in latitude, with a habitat from Northern California all the way to Alaska. These trees do not expand far inland, but there is some population in Idaho. Elevation does not seem to bother the western redwood. Overall, it seems to thrive just about anywhere. It grows at sea level or in mountain ranges. Also, you can find it growing in swamps, on stream banks, on mountainsides, and filling lush forests. The western red cedar can thrive in many sunlight situations and adapts its growth accordingly.

How Long Can a Western Red Cedar Tree Live?

The western red cedar is an ancient species. Many of the untouched specimen are close to a thousand years old. At the same time, scientists estimate the oldest western red cedar is 1460 years old.

Can I Grow a Western Red Cedar Tree?

Western red cedars will grow best in the Pacific Northwest. However, arborists have had significant success transplanting these trees into temperate climates like Europe and the Eastern United States. Those in the United Kingdom planted western red cedars, and they flourished so much that they are naturally growing without human support.

Overall, the western red cedar will tolerate many types of soil and sunlight situations. A moist soil is preferred, but not completely necessary. Saplings do not do well when transplanted and so it is best to start this tree from a seed. They will survive well through frost, but heavy snow can damage the branches. It is best to plant your seed in early spring or early fall just with enough time for the roots to spread before that first initial frost. Planting them in the heat of summer can be detrimental and shocking to your young tree.

Western red cedars grow quickly, often at two feet a year. You will want to provide ample space for your tree to reach its full potential.

It is Time to BRANCH out into some fun tree facts!

  • The largest western red cedar is the Willaby Creek Tree in Washington standing at 195 feet.
  • A beautiful western red cedar was vandalized in the 1970s and fell due to fire. It dug its own grave known as “Giant’s Grave” from the force of its impact.
  • The United States boasts the oldest western red cedars.

The largest western red cedar is the Willaby Creek Tree in Washington standing at 195 feet.

A beautiful western red cedar was vandalized in the 1970s and fell due to fire. It dug its own grave known as “Giant’s Grave” from the force of its impact.

The United States boasts the oldest western red cedars.

What are Some Uses for Western Red Cedar Trees?

Humans and animals alike find a multitude of uses for western red cedars. They serve as pillars of the forest while living. Moreover, Native Americans have a longstanding history with the western red cedar. They used every aspect of the tree in order to benefit their lives.

Natural Uses

Native Americans consider the western red cedar to be a “life giver”. They used all parts of the tree to make homes, weapons, tools, art, and boats. They also made medicines from the different parts of the tree. Altogether, entire cultures thrived because these trees stood tall in the forest. They turned the lumber into canoes, totem poles, weapons, utensils, and shelters.

The roots and bark also have excellent uses. Rope, clothing, blankets, and baskets can all be created from these thick portions of the tree. Additionally, with careful extraction, you can pull the bark in one strip as long as 30 feet.

The abundance of the western red cedars and the goal of the native people to use as much as the tree as possible led to many portions of the tree being used for medicinal purposes. The needles are naturally aromatic. Furthermore, many say the aroma is like pineapple. The essential oils from western red cedars are antimicrobial and have long been used as insect repellent and to fight bacteria and viruses. The leaves act as an excellent anti-fungal topically. You can brew the leaves into tea and make a foot soak to fight fungus. Overall, be cautious when ingesting cedar in large volumes because it contains toxins.

Artistic Uses

Together with the natural uses of the western red cedar, Native Americans also used the wood to build musical instruments.

Entire trees are felled by Native Americans to carve totem poles that stand at the center of their society. We can make clothing from the soft parts of the tree.

The western red cedar is the center of many cultures, often seen as a life or mother tree. Altogether, the mighty size and beautiful color locks in this tree in many pieces of art for its beauty.

Residential/Commercial Uses

Builders use lumber from the western red cedar for many applications. It is relatively abundant and less protected than the other giants of the Western United States. While it can be used for structural applications, it does not have the same load bearing characteristics of other species. Overall, it is resistant to rot and insects. The most common applications are for siding, trim, decking, and paneling. Many roof builders use the lumber for shingles and fascia.

It is still common to use western red cedar to produce boats. Moreover, the wood is easy to work with and shape. It has a strong water resistance, which makes it ideal for boats and canoes. The wood is reddish pink in color, giving it a unique finish for someone looking to add this deep earth tone.

Wrap Up

Many cultures find the western red cedar to be a centerpiece of their lives. We can use the wood, bark, and leaves in a multitude of ways, from medicinal to structural. Likewise, they grow quickly and are found in great abundance across the Pacific Northwest. These enormous trees grow up to 200 feet in height and 20 feet in width. All things considered, the western red cedars are magnificent specimens that thrive in almost any environment. You will have great success if you choose to add this tree to your backyard. Altogether, you will plant history as it will probably live for a thousand years.

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